describe the imageAfter writing last week’s post, STEM Industries Can Learn from Professional Sports, I kept thinking about the staffing challenges our industry faces and my thoughts turned from finding qualified people to the flip side of that coin, retaining the talent that you have. Retention is always a hot topic and I’ve shared advice before on what you can do to hold on to your employees, whether they are part of your permanent or contingent workforce. (See: Employee Retention: Perception vs. Reality; The Key to IT Contractor Retention; and Increase IT Contractor Retention.) As the competition for people heats up, especially in the big four areas of cloud, mobile, social, and data analytics, retention efforts should be top of mind.

As so often happens, thanks to the plethora of information available on line, no sooner had I started reflecting on retention when an article arrived in my in box with timely advice. Written by Dr. John Sullivan, Bold Approaches for Successfully Retaining Every Innovator, Part 1 and Part 2, puts forth some very provocative ideas. As his bio notes, some consider his approach “thought-provoking and somewhat controversial,” and that certainly holds true with some of what he discusses in the articles, but pushing the envelope is a good thing when done correctly, and many of his ideas are good and certainly warrant thinking about.

Dr. Sullivan focuses on “innovators” but substitute the phrase “key performer” or “critical position” and you can both understand the importance of retaining these people and the need to implement a bolder, more strategic plan. No one wants to lose any employee, the disruption and replacement costs and effort are significant and when that employee is a critical one, the impact and consequences are heightened even more. The articles include many ideas, too many for me to discuss them all so I’ll cover the highlights:

  1. Identify and prioritize your key employees. While your talent management strategy should include retention efforts focused on all employees, the ideas put forth here are not feasible or practical to implement for everyone, and they are not meant to be. You need to identify who your critical people are, who deserves the time and effort of an enhanced retention plan. Use data and ROI to convince leadership and others of the importance.
  2. Carefully develop your retention plan. The best plan is one that is personalized, recognizes that different individuals are motivated by different things, puts the responsibility for retention in the hands of the managers not HR, and provides a variety of “tools” that the manager can use.
  3. Engage the employee. Sullivan provides 10 ideas in Part 1 and most of them involve talking to the person, whether it is “develop[ing] a “how-to-best-manage-me” profile,” or a “more of/less of excitement list.” The suggestions I like the best involve proactive conversations such as “conducting a pre-exit interview” where “instead of waiting until a [key employee] considers another external offer, [you] ask them in an interview or survey “why do you stay… [and] why would you leave?” He also suggests periodically asking key performers to stay and making sure they understand the impact of their work and their importance to the organization. All of these involve being proactive, but not necessarily a big dollar investment.
  4. Include senior management. Whether it is approving and supporting the overall efforts or direct involvement such as his suggestion to “beat the external recruiters to the punch by having a “level up” or senior manager re-recruit…at least once every two years” or to arrange for a visit from the CEO or President, senior managements buy in and participation is crucial.
  5. Use HR strategically. Sullivan feels strongly that HR’s role is one of support not ownership. HR should provide the tool kit to managers and ensure that they understand all the possible “levers” that can be used. It’s also important that they monitor retention efforts to make sure that they are being implemented in a timely manner and stay on track with the plan. HR has an important role to play in designing and championing retention endeavors, use them wisely.

There are a lot more suggestions and ideas, some a bit more bold than others, and not all will be to your taste. All in all though, I think many of them are highly implementable or adaptable to your specific situation. Nothing eliminates the need to clearly understand the salary market for your key performers but money is not the only or necessarily the most important factor to people. These ideas are mostly not about money but instead about paying attention and making your key employee feel valued. At a time when others will be trying harder than ever to entice your best employees away, your best defense may be a good offense. Be proactive!

Jerry Brenholz
President and CEO
ATR International

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Having trouble retaining yor best IT employees? Download: 6 Things You Can Do to Dramatically Increase IT Contractor Retention


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