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How do you keep good employees? Hint: It may not be what you think.

By Denise Harrison, Executive Vice President & COO

A CEO was perplexed by recent attrition in his customer service area.  What was causing this outflow of talent?  Pay was at or above the norm for positions in this area, yet several of his key employees had left.  Has this happened to you? Are you concerned that some of your key talent might leave as the economy picks up and there are more opportunities out there?   Bob Grabill, CEO of the Chief Executive Network, states that we typically focus on the 20% that is not performing, rather than spending time on the 20% who does 80% of the work.  While it is important to address non-performance in an organization, it is at least equally important to spend time with the top performers to truly understand what can enable them to be more successful.  When was the last time you sat down with one of your top performers to learn what they like about their job and how you can help them be more successful?  I am not talking about a performance review – I am talking about a meeting that is purely focused on the individual and what drives and detracts from their performance.

Stay InterviewIt is important to conduct what is now called in the literature a “stay interview” with key employees.  A stay interview asks an employee what they like about the job.  What are the barriers to getting work done?  Is there anything that can be done to make life easier?  It is often the little things that can make a difference.  So often we turn to money when thinking about why people leave or stay at jobs, but often, once the basic financial needs are met, there are other things like flex-time that make a difference.  Often we try “one size fits all” solutions without really recognizing that each individual has preferences and there may be generational differences in priorities.  What are some things that have come up in stay interviews?

  • Work on challenging products (intellectual challenge and raised visibility within the company)
  • Training to learn more about a new technology or other aspect of the business
  • Work in a different department to learn more about the company
  • Attendance at outside trade association conferences; participation on trade association boards
  • Assistance on specific tasks so that time can be spent doing what the person is good at rather than what they are not good at
  • Flex-time;  work at home, start work early and leave early (or late) to coordinate day care with spouse
  • “Sabbatical” time for employees who work overseas on long-term projects so that they can spend some uninterrupted time with their families when they get home
  • Time management courses
  • New laptop to replace laptop that was old and often froze up

It is important when you have a stay interview that you are sincerely interested in what the employee has to say.  You must clarify that you will do what you can as long as it is within areas that you can control and that it is consistent with the company goals and objectives.  If you can, work with the person to define if they are interested in challenging projects, or looking for a mastery of a topic, or looking for flexibility to manage work/life balance or autonomy.  Are they looking for recognition/visibility, or a sense of what they do matters?  All of these areas can be explored and, in most cases, you can develop a plan that keeps the employees engaged and more satisfied at work by making some changes that are important to the employees, but do not revolve around compensation.  You will have a better sense of the employee’s goals and ambitions and what you can do to enable the person to achieve these goals.  During a stay interview the employee often clarifies what they want and then you discuss how that matches with what the organization needs and what action they can take to move in a positive direction.

Action Take some time to identify your key employees and have a stay interview with each of them.  Develop action steps after each meeting and execute on those steps.  Be honest, if there are things that will not be part of the action steps, be clear about this and explore other options.  No one can realistically expect you to hand them the moon and the stars.  In the opening paragraph, our CEO was faced with some losses in the customer service area.  He found that the employees had been interested in making some changes to enhance the efficiency of the department, but their suggestions had not been acted upon.  They left in frustration because they saw ways to make things better, but no interest in the leadership to make the changes.  This information was tough to swallow, but it provided the impetus to avoid future loss of key employees by using stay interviews to ensure that these ideas were not lost along with the employees.  Make sure that you take the time to address employee satisfaction as a tactic in your strategies.  For many companies, it is the intellectual knowhow that resides in employees that truly sets the company apart in the marketplace.  It is important that you address this as an important factor in maintaining your competitive advantage.  To highlight the importance of maintaining and sustaining your company’s intellectual capital, please read:  “Success Sows the Seeds of Failure – Toyota’s Complacency Causes Reputation to Crash” by clicking on Toyota and “Building and Sustaining Intellectual Assets” by clicking on Assets.

Denise Harrison is Executive Vice President and COO of the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.  She can be reached at  harrison@cssp.com.

© Copyright 2013 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.