Dear Clients and Friends
In my strategic planning work, leaders in every firm I see are (justifiably) grumbling about our industry’s talent shortage and shaking their heads ruefully when they lose good people. I’d like to claim you can “poach-proof” your firm, but that’s not possible. There are, however, some preemptive actions you can take that will help your firm withstand the talent wars, irrespective of outside temptations.
Here are a few do’s and don’ts:
Do work hard to develop personal relationships with employees at all levels in your firm, and encourage all managers to do the same. The old saying “people don’t quit their company, they quit their manager” contains an element of truth. If someone has a strong personal relationship with the person they work for, they are less likely to be tempted by outside offers. The same goes for fostering informal friendships among employees and their colleagues—admittedly more difficult in a post-Covid world with hybrid work environments, but worth striving for.
Don’t rely on the old outdated “open door policy.” If you’re the president/CEO, or any leader or manager (with a private office) claiming your door is “open” (whatever that means) you’re demonstrating, at best, a passive interest in your employees. Employees won’t walk through your door if they don’t already feel comfortable confiding in you.
Do be proactive and intentional, initiating frequent short casual conversations with employees—where they work, not in your office—and less frequently, but arguably more importantly, seek out opportunities to engage in occasional private conversations about their plans and their future.
Don’t give up. Conversations, interactions, and relationship-building with employees is not a one-time activity. You can’t just wade in, have a talk, return to your office, and think all is good. Building relationships with all of your people should be a primary focus of each leader and manager in your firm.
Don’t use the words retain or retention. While managers see it from their own perspective as retaining (i.e., keeping) staff, employees understandably don’t want to feel “retained.”
Do think in terms of engaging with employees and, vice-versa, employees engaging with your firm: a higher bar than simply “retaining” them, but one that both sides can relate to. More engaged people will like where they are, and be less tempted to leave a satisfying and gratifying “known” for a questionable “unknown.”
Don’t believe that “stay interviews” conducted by HR (nothing against HR) will solve the problem. Employees are smart and perceptive, and they understand that these are artificial and contrived. As one of my colleagues observed, it’s a lot easier for an employee to say “I got a job that pays more” than to engage in a staged conversation about the real reasons they may be dissatisfied. An engaged employee who feels comfortable speaking with his or her manager is more likely to share the truth.
Do be an optimistic, glass-half-full leader. Share your firm’s potential and possibilities with your employees, in groups and one-on-one conversations, and translate those opportunities to a personal level. Let your people know the steps you are taking to bring challenging and interesting projects to them. Ask your people how they see themselves in the firm’s future. Be sincerely inquisitive.
Don’t burn bridges when someone gives notice; instead try to learn from the experience. Jobs may be short, but careers are long. Some employees return after testing the waters elsewhere, and may even refer new hires to you. Recognize that the employee contributed to your firm, acknowledge their positive impacts, and appreciate them for that.
Finally, do reward employees appropriately. While the motivational impact of a pay increase may be short-lived, the employment market is red hot and many firms’ compensation programs are out-of-date and out-of-touch with current reality.
If many of these suggestions seem like common sense, that’s because “common sense” is just a label for things you already knew you should be doing. But you knew that, too.
All of us who have been in this business for a while recognize its cyclicality: There are times when there are more people than there is work; and there are times—like now, and the foreseeable future—when there is more work than people to do it. It’s cliché, of course, but your people really are your firm’s greatest asset.
If you have thoughts about this, I’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.