We’ve all gone through it. You think everything is ok, your team is doing well, your programs are performing, and then … bam. You get some cryptic meeting request from one of your up-and-coming stars and immediately your Spidey senses start tingling. You just know what’s about to come … you hope it’s not … but it is. It always is. You get the bad news – your future star has decided to leave for a 20% raise and a better title.
It’s frustrating to get surprised by a team member quitting. Having a bright, high potential employee shock you in that way can shake your confidence as a manager and disrupt the culture you’re trying to build on your team.
Today we’re going to explore three strategies I’ve adopted to reduce the amount of surprise turnover on my team. I hope they will be helpful to you.
It’s getting harder to retain talent. Especially young, high potential team members. There are a bunch of reasons for this.
A few that come to my mind:
The widespread availability of salary information and benchmarks can make people impatient. Employees, especially those early in their careers, can earn relatively large salary jumps by moving from one company to another.
There is a near universal expectation of empowerment and autonomy, even from entry level employees. There is almost zero tolerance at this point for menial work, rigid direction, or tough performance management. It can be easy for a team member to justify making a quick career move in search of what may seem like greater freedom and responsibility somewhere else.
These days, company culture is marketed as aggressively as the products companies produce. More than ever, the grass can appear to greener at other organizations. It’s easy for your team members, especially the less experienced ones, to imagine themselves in the job of their dreams at some utopian company they’ve read about in promoted articles on LinkedIn or Glassdoor.
As managers, we need to stop pretending things haven’t changed. We need to stop bemoaning the situation and start changing our behaviors. I had to give my own head a shake a couple of years ago when one of my favorite employees left the company. It was a total shock to me. It made me question everything. Here I was thinking I was being a great mentor, a great teacher, and then … she was gone. I was forced, in that moment, to confront the truth of my management practices. I took a hard look at what I was doing and what I was not doing, and made some specific changes to my approach.
Here are three strategies I adopted to reduce the amount of surprise turnover on my team. I can’t promise this will eliminate it entirely for you, but it will help.
More Dedicated Career Conversations
Most managers will claim to conduct career conversations with team members. You need to be honest with yourself about this one. The occasional 5-minute conversation during performance review time is not enough. Waiting until your employee comes to you asking about career path or asking about a raise is also not enough.
In my opinion, managers need to have an ongoing, active career conversation with every employee on the team. What I mean by “active” is that it is something YOU make happen. Some managers espouse that it’s the employee’s job to manage their own careers – I disagree. That perspective is too passive. It ignores the reality of the situation we’re in. A manager needs to get personally invested in the careers of team members. “Active”, in this sense, also means “purposeful”. You need to schedule time that is dedicated only to having career conversations – in addition to the ongoing dialogue you have in your regular 1-1 cadence. This may seem like a lot to you, but my recommendation is to have one career conversation every month with each employee. In this meeting you only talk about career. That’s 12 dedicated career conversations a year with each of your team members. It’s a lot – but these are crazy times – I believe it’s necessary.
If you are not personally invested in the careers of your team members, who is? If you don’t understand what your team members are striving for, who does? A manager should never be surprised when an employee leaves. That is not to say your team members will never leave – they will. Sometimes there is a disconnect between what they want for their careers and what you can offer. Sometimes there is a gap between their assessment of their abilities and yours. It happens. By having more career conversations, you can’t prevent people from leaving entirely, but you can make sure you’ll never be surprised when they do.
Give More Context for Everything
A big reason employees leave is they don’t feel like their work is meaningful. They can’t see a connection between what they do and the highest-level strategy of the company. This is especially true of entry level employees. When you can’t connect the dots between your work and the outcomes the company is pursuing, it can be demoralizing. It can also make that start-up down the street seem extremely attractive.
While you can’t give every team member a job on the strategic front lines, you can help them find meaning in their work. Since I vowed to change my behavior, I’ve made a point of investing more time providing the full business context for every request I make and project I assign. Some managers feel they don’t have time for this. They just want to give direction and have that direction followed. In my experience, this leads to lower quality work and dramatically increases the risk of surprise turnover.
My recommendation to managers is to begin every project or task request with a clear articulation of what the company is trying to achieve and how the request is connected to it. The task in question may be multiple steps removed from company strategy but you should still have the patience to connect it. Since I have started making this investment, I’ve seen a dramatic improvement in overall work quality and employee engagement. When your team members understand why something is important and what you’re ultimately trying to achieve, they can act with greater creativity and purpose.
Engage in a Longer-Term Plan
Most employees are too short-term focused. Most managers are too. That’s easy for me to say given I’m 20 years into a career, but bear with me. When you’re two years out of school, still living pay cheque to pay cheque, it’s hard not to be short sighted. The challenge is, without the benefit of experience, it’s almost impossible to appreciate the real value of patience in a career. It’s so easy to convince yourself that making a quick jump to the company down the street for a 10K raise and “Senior” on your title is a good move. For an entry level employee, that can be the difference between getting car and taking the bus. It can be the difference between living with roommates and getting your own place. Job hopping can be extremely appealing.
Managers should not restrict the scope of career conversations to the next rung on the ladder. If your conversation with an Associate is restricted to what it will take to make Specialist, you’re not looking long term enough. Go all the way with your career conversations.
My recommendation to managers is to create a long-term plan with employees. They don’t need to have all the answers right away – they may not even know what they want to do in 15 years – but you should still have the dialogue. Help them see multiple moves ahead. Help them understand how salaries will change dramatically three or four levels from where they are today. Where a 10K difference in salary isn’t as significant as it may now seem. Show them how you’ll help them develop and grow. Get them thinking more long term and you’ll get surprised much less.
You can’t eliminate regrettable turnover altogether. It’s impossible to keep everyone engaged. You can’t always offer exactly what your team members want. But you can avoid getting surprised when people quit. Get more invested in your team member’s careers. Start really caring about them. Dedicate time to talking about them. Since I’ve adopted these strategies, I’ve noticed a marked reduction in surprise turnover. I hope they’ll help you too.