A mid -size family business, run by a father and his two sons, was having trouble retaining their part-time employees. We met for a compression planning session to get a solution to this problem. As we began the session, a few questions came to mind. “What’s an example of a company that’s world-class at retaining part -time employees?” I asked.
They thought together for a bit and agreed that “Chik-fil-A” was a good example of a company great at employee retention. “Why do you think “Chik-fil-A” is so effective?” The two sons started rattling off reasons, “good pay, great benefits, flexible schedules–” Their father added, “They really care for their employees…in fact I think you could say that they love them.” Everyone nodded in agreement. The practical positives of pay, benefits, and scheduling were helpful, even essential in some cases…but not central.
I pinned a index card on my storyboard, labeled “Ways to show our employees that we care for them” , and asked for their ideas. They generated 10 ideas in just a few minutes. Then they selected their top three actionable ideas, balancing cost and importance, and created a plan around each of them. The family team was fired up and ready to roll out these simple strategies. “There is one step you need to take before you’ll get the results you want from your staff, ” I said. They listened eagerly. “For the next 90 days, you need to practice applying these three principles to each other.” They stared at me, then back at one another.
Too Many Keys
What is the key to retaining employees? Hundreds of surveys and books have attempted to answer this costly problem. In the end everyone winds up with the same top five or six keys: challenging work, appreciation from the boss, more money, life-work balance, healthy peer relationships and purposeful career paths. That seems like a fragile list of interdependent items as it is, but to complicate matters even more, is one more important than another? And for which generation? Gen X, Gen Y, Baby Boomers, etc? Sounds like a prime opportunity for a consultant to develop a retention matrix and solve this thing.
Relax, I don’t have a matrix, but I do have one more story. Between these two stories, it’s possible that we’ll find a central key to employee retention that spans all generations and methodology fads.
Turning Things Around
A few years ago I recognized a key retention principle. I was working with a newly hired commercial real estate executive. We’ll call the executive “Joe”. Joe was recruited from a competitor and was assigned to turn around a failing division. This division was entrenched in a classic “culture of fear” as described in Tom Demarco’s book, Slack – Getting Past Burnout, Busywork And the Myth of Total Efficiency:
Characteristics of a Culture of Fear
- It is not safe to voice doubts
- Goals are so aggressive that there is virtually no chance of achieving them
- Power trumps common sense
- The consequence for not “knuckling under” aggressive schedules is ridicule and abuse
- Those who are fired are generally more competent than the people who aren’t
- Everyone is terrified of confronting his or her manager
Motivation by fear never works in the long run, and it had been a very long run in a culture of fear for this struggling team that Joe had inherited. However, in just 9 months Joe orchestrated a 180-degree turn-around. The department improved to the point of having the lowest turnover and highest internal customer satisfaction rating in the company! This change endured. Two years later this division was listed as a key strength on the company’s strategic plan (instead of a glaring weakness) and still maintains one of the highest employee retention rates in the industry.
Vision and Appreciation
How did this happen? Little did Joe’s team members know that when he took over the department, his professional career and personal spirit was in the proverbial ditch, right alongside theirs. He had just resigned from a “Culture of Fear” organization himself. So, before he threw himself into creating innovative plans to fix his new team, he chose first to yield himself to healing and change. He renewed his life and career plan, which effectively restored his personal and professional vision. In the process, he grasped a guiding principle that served to support his leadership success in retaining and growing people forever: “it’s much easier to lead people up a new road if you have walked that road as well.”
To evaluate his progress, Joe requested some formal feedback from his all employees. He received a lengthy report from HR. As he began to go through the many pages of his report, he noted high marks on the objective scoring portion. He was pleased. Then he turned to the “Additional Comments” section. There it was. His unrealized strategy for retention in nine simple words: “Joe, thank you for giving us our lives back.”
Joe was humbled, overwhelmed and realized all the more clearly that his sincere care and visionary leadership (fueled by personal insight) had enabled this departmental change, and inspired those heartfelt words. The family business team of the first story had a similar opportunity to embrace these relational principles, as do you and I. It may be worth a try.
Working Journal Entry: Love or Fear – which will you choose to help you hold on to the people you value in your leadership and your life? Who will go first?
What I need is someone who will make me do what I can. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Characteristics of Love:
Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience. -#1 favorite quote on the Internet June 2012
Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives. – C. S. Lewis
What is it about me that is getting in the way of my achieving what I desire for my business, career and life?