Saturday, September 09, 2006

Giving Your Top Performers a Reason to Stay

Right now, I am middle of resolving a thorny issue of making a team of excellent engineers to stay. The engineers are burnt out by sheer overwork in last nine months and have threatened to resign if the work conditions do not improve. At the same time, I am seeing a mass attrition at my previous company - the company I left few months ago. This made me look at the other aspects of employee retention. Since I have moved around different companies and have seen other people change jobs as well - there were several common things that caused employee attrition and is worth writing in this article.

Ambition and the Employee

When I look back in my own career - I can see that the most compelling reason for me to quit/change jobs was always to enhance my career. High performers often are capable of motivating themselves - and one thing that motivates them the most is ambition.

Ambition is a positive trait - that one looks for when hiring a person. Top performers achieve a lot because they are motivated by their ambition - but when the job no longer meets their ambition - employees start looking around for other venues to feed their ambition. Thus an employee’s ambition is an advantage when used properly and a threat if not handled properly.

Career Development

Today, companies are eager to hire accomplished employees - many companies even poach the top performers from their competitors. The scramble to attract top talent has led to fast growing industry of head hunters. In technology world - companies have become so used to the idea of hiring the right person to the job - that many a times managers ignore the prospect of grooming an existing employee to a greater role. The concept of career development within an organization is being ignored - see Hiring in high-tech firm: Build Vs Buying Talent

Career development is critical to keeping employees committed and engaged in their jobs. If they feel that their career growth is compromised they will change jobs. In another example, An employee had long wanted to move into a higher-level position, but he lacked the type of technological expertise that company policy required for that position. So when offered a similar job without that particular string attached, the employee jumped at the chance.

Why was his manager blind sided by the employee’s departure? Because he had never had any significant career-development discussions with the employee, and as a result had no idea what the employee wanted. If the manager had known the employee’s goal and what stood in the way, he could easily have helped the employee develop that skill.

Why tech workers get change jobs?

The reason they get antsy is partly in the nature of technical work itself. Many engineers feel they have finished their work when their project is functioning smoothly. Soon after that they need to find an interesting challenge. If they cannot find another interesting position internally, or if they want to continue developing software or projects, they have no choice but to look elsewhere.

Recent studies of high-tech employees suggests that three main factors affect IT employee retention:

  1. Work environment (e.g. challenging work, atmosphere, physical environment)
  2. Educational opportunities or Career growth
  3. Quality of life
Compensation and benefits were mentioned but to a lesser extent. Most of them are aware of the demand for their services and know that all they need to do to get a salary increase of 12-15% is to put themselves on the job market again.

This study shows how crucial career-development communication is to retaining talent. People who feel they’re going to have a chance to grow are much more likely to stay with an organization, even if they get slightly more money somewhere else.

Despite its importance to retention, many managers give career development short shrift. Managers find it perplexing, even onerous task.

The fear factor

Why do managers have such a hard time discussing career development? For one thing, many managers have never experienced such conversations themselves and thus have no models for how to go about them. What’s more, in today’s fast-paced environment, many managers simply don’t want to spend the time. But the biggest underlying reason managers avoid these conversations is the fear factor.

Managers are fearful that they will have to deliver a message that will be met with resistance. For instance, having to tell someone hungry for a promotion that he is not yet ready for it.

What’s more, some managers fear that by helping employees grow, they may be helping them grow out of the unit. But if they resist the conversation because of the fear of losing the person, they probably going to lose them in any case. A talented employee who receives no encouragement from his manager to stretch and develop may believe that the manager does not value him or see his potential; indeed, leaving may seem the most sensible option.

What do they really want?

The first step is to meet with the employee and simply ask him/her what his/her goals are. Initially the employee may be less than forthcoming. If you are dealing with a highly talented and versatile member of your team, the employee may find it hard to identify a specific career path - because they don’t want to limit there options. At this point you as their manager can help identify the most promising possibility by using some probing questions:

  1. What assignments have you found to be most engaging?
  2. Tell me about an accomplishment in the past six months you feel good about.
  3. What makes for a great day at work?
You can also give some kind of formal career assessment. Identify their strong points and give some pointers as to how they can develop it further. A manager in an R&D group discovered that one of his employees like to do marketing. And during the initial career-development conversations with that employee, the manager suggested him to do an MBA degree.

Once you’ve helped an employee uncover his goals, you can then help him put together a development plan. At this point, it’s especially important to set realistic expectations.

If an employee isn’t ready to take on certain responsibilities, you need to discuss the specific skills he needs to develop first. False promises won’t work. Most of the steps for developing skills will involve on-the-job activities, for instance, serving on a cross-functional task force or shadowing a colleague.

Once you have a plan, you need to meet regularly, at least once per month, to track the employee’s progress. At each meeting, go over the development plan and next steps.

Be frank and honest

In some cases, career-development discussions require the manager to say things the employee may find uncomfortable to hear the details about the employee’s weaker areas, for instance. To make these conversations most effective, prepare for them carefully by gathering as many specifics as possible. Cite examples of where the employee’s weaknesses worked to her detriment, and highlight the benefits to be gained from building particular skills.

This is especially important for successful employees on the fast track who might not respond well to criticism: ‘A high performer whose progress within his company was being impeded by his abrasive interruptions during meetings. To make his point, the manager described a specific example of when the employee’s interruptions stopped a colleague from taking his side. He was able to see that, while his goal in that meeting was to get people to listen to his point of view, he wasn’t able to achieve it.

Discuss more than just vertical options

If an employee expresses interest in a job he doesn’t have the skills for or the position simply isn’t open, there are lots of other possibilities. For example, you can add responsibilities to an existing job.

A key employee wanted to become a team leader at a time when there were no appropriate openings. So the manager suggested the man run a group developing a new Internet portal to give him the chance to try his hand at leading and developing something new. Or you can suggest making a lateral move.

A store manager who wanted to move to a corporate role but lacked the experience. The company reassigned him to HR for two years to help him develop more management skills.
Another option is to have an employee shadow someone in a job the employee wants, so the employee can learn more about the job and gain a clearer sense of what it will take to get there.

Give Guidance to their careers

You need to have different discussions with your employees. If you have a highly ambitious employee who wants to move too quickly - before he’s quite ready - you should help him establish a more strategic plan for advancing, one that will allow him to develop the strength he needs to go further in the long term.

If you have an employee not interested in moving up too quickly, you’ll want to guide him in improving specific skills while exploring ways to keep him engaged. In addition, consider each person’s preference for just how involved you should get. One person might want you to provide a broad sense of the targets to hit, while another might prefer you go over things step by step.

Closing Thoughts

In today’s hyper-competitive world, hiring and retaining quality talent is essential for any firm. Many companies have developed a successful plan in hiring quality talent, but most of them fail to retain their best talent. This trend is more common in high tech industry - where the management emphasis has been to get the right person for the job - rather than groom a person into the job. But there again are few exceptions - European firms: Unilever, Shell, Seimens, BT, BP, Alcatel etc. have a long history of grooming employees to leadership positions. This lesson must be followed in high-tech industry as well. Indian IT companies - mainly TCS & Infosys have developed a well defined employee training program - but are still learning on how to manage an employee’s ambitions.

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