Research & Thought Leadership

How to retain talent during turbulent times

Dr Ilze Lansdell-Zandvoort

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Why do talented people leave? This question should be front of mind for managers and HR practitioners alike. Especially if your organization is operating in turbulent times where key talent plays an important role in survival.

If the war on talent has taught us anything, it is that money does not buy loyalty. However, money can expose a lack of loyalty. Many high-performing employees have been ‘poached’ by competitors willing to pay over the odds for your talent. Yet, we have also seen talented employees ‘jumping ship’ to positions without that alluring price tag. So, if it’s not the money that makes people stay ... what is it?

The answer I believe is simple. We need to give employees a reason to want to stay, despite challenges, and temptation.

There has been an ongoing debate on whether people quit their jobs – or quit their bosses. Certainly, having a bad boss remains one of the key reasons why employees jump ship. They leave when they are being micro-managed, disrespected, disregarded, under-valued, silenced, bullied, unsupported, and such. However, many employees don’t quit their bosses, they quit their work. They leave when their jobs are no longer fun, challenging, fulfilling, sustainable, or inspirational. Sadly, their managers are often to blame for this too.

Beyond developing personal and inter-personal leadership skills that make managers ‘good bosses’, they must also learn public leadership skills. This ability to influence the wider organizational culture, systems, and processes is vital for managers to retain talented employees. Ensuring roles are shaped to value and use personal strengths and providing potential for career growth is key in talent retention.

If managers can make all the difference in retaining talent, we need to ask ourselves what it is we need to be doing? We need to know why our employees joined us. Why do they come to work ready to over-perform? What do they value about their work and their communities at work? Then we need to get some basics right.

Here I would like to highlight the top five recommendations from my research Lessons leaders need to learn from those living through change.

5 recommendations to retain talent:

1.    Demonstrate your loyalty and respect to your employees and in turn, you will earn their loyalty and respect.

Demonstrate your loyalty to all your employees, not just your ‘talent pipeline’ in as many ways as possible. For example, ensure that your employees know and feel that you have their back. Remove barriers that get in their way and enable them to flourish and succeed. Pay attention also to how you exit those who leave, albeit voluntarily or not. Recognize their positive contributions, allow opportunities for appreciation and farewells. Do not allow departures to go unmentioned. This will not be unnoticed, and it will send a message that ‘employees are not valued’.

2.     Don’t ascribe to talent training programs but create a learning culture for all.

Invest in the development of all your employees. Ensure you create a process for shared reflection and learning, without blame, shame, or fear of failure. Create opportunities for all employees to become more skilled, more experienced, and more valued, especially those at risk of becoming obsolete. You may find you have untapped talent that has been overlooked and under-appreciated waiting to surprise you.

3.     Know what gives your employees purpose and pride in their work. Then actively create a sense of shared identity around common values or purpose.

A strong sense of shared identity amplifies loyalty to the group and enjoyment in association with the group fuels engagement.

4.     Create a sense of belonging and strong bonds of friendship by bringing people together in meaningful ways.

Value and promote shared activities in a variety of ways. Promote a culture of teamwork, mentoring, collaboration, shared decision-making, and enjoyment. Look out for employees that may feel or become isolated and seek ways to create a sense of community. Forging strong ties within a larger group makes quitting a team harder than quitting a role or a boss.

5.     Deal with negative rumors, gossip, and behavior that can erode team spirit and engagement.

Be brave and be a role model. Challenge mindsets, language, and behavior that undermine shared values, ethics, morals, inclusivity, equity, and mutual appreciation.

None of these practices in and of themselves are radical or unorthodox. Yet, during times of significant change, many managers are seemingly unable to practice or sustain these behaviors. The challenge, therefore, lies not in what to do but in how to do it. These practices require a level of integration between personal, interpersonal, and public leadership skills that are difficult to retain under pressure. In the face of crisis, many managers become overwhelmed. Their ability for self-reflection and ‘choice-full’ leadership diminishes as their levels of stress increase.

“Is this a place I want to stay in?”

Your role is to help your talented employees answer “YES” to this question. They will be asking themselves this question on multiple occasions, especially in turbulent times. Make time to consider their position, and in turn, your response. Keep it simple and keep it real by asking them to help you understand what you can do differently.

Dr Ilze Lansdell-Zandvoort is a Professor of Management and Leadership at Hult International Business School where she helps leaders explore practical recommendations for those leading change in our immersive experience on the Pioneering Culture Transformation with Communication Program.

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