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Oct 19, 2016

Jennifer is A-list talent.

She has a rare combination of high powered analytical skills and high emotional intelligence, which makes her outstanding at her work in the world of analyzing and designing the perfect experience for employees and patients.

Jennifer is highly respected by her peers, especially after she orchestrated a major patient satisfaction turnaround in her organization shortly after being hired.

Unfortunately for Jennifer’s employer, she just submitted her resignation.

Jennifer’s story is a cautionary tale for employers who live or die based on their ability to attract, retain, and engage A-list talent.

Her story can also be a teachable moment for those who don’t just say “Human capital is our greatest asset,” but who actually believe it, and are willing to examine whether their actions reflect their belief.

Talent retention fail

Let’s dive into Jennifer’s story to analyze what went wrong and what wise employers can learn from this organization’s Talent Retention Fail.

When Jennifer relocated to the Midwest, she applied for an upper-level management position in a healthcare system. When she asked around for feedback about the organization, a friend of a friend warned her about it. This friend had worked with the organization as a consultant and was appalled by the chaotic, ADHD-ish, and downright disrespectful way that the leadership team — modeled by the CEO — ran the organization, and how the CEO had treated her.

The consultant shared how the same frustrations and sources of anger voiced in the employee interviews she conducted were writ large in her interactions with the CEO, including:

  1. Poor communication and often no communication while expecting the consultant to deliver a great result.
  2. Mercurial shifts in goals, directions, and directives after setting onerous deadlines for deliverables resulting in all the hard work being rendered useless.
  3. Unwillingness to listen to or act on feedback.

Despite the warnings, Jennifer took the job because of the minimal opportunities available.

Her enthusiasm for excellence, kind and courteous ways, and ability to deliver results quickly won her the respect of her peers.

Yet, despite her success, not once did her boss give her any positive feedback. While this alone was disappointing, it was merely a small piece of a larger picture: a culture of fear, disrespect, and disengagement.

After two years of making the best of a bad situation, Jennifer had had enough.

When she told her boss she was leaving, her boss was shocked. What could they do to keep her?

She offered her a major raise and told her — for the first time — how much she appreciated the great work he had been doing.

It was too little too late.

Jennifer was leaving, along with her decades of experience, commitment to excellence, ability to deliver results, and ability to bring out the best in the people, whether in those she supervised or in her peers.

A lesson for all organizations

Leaders in organizations that have good cultures might find it easy to dismiss Jennifer’s story as just another example of what happens when you have poor leadership and a toxic culture, and therefore not relevant to them.

However, years of conducting employee interviews tell me a different story. Research on the percentage of employees who intend to leave their employer as soon as they find a better opportunity, also tells a different story.

Organizations that are heavily dependent on their ability to attract, retain and engage A-list talent, especially in hard-to-fill positions, would be wise to heed this cautionary tale and use it as a catalyst to gather the information that will allow them to find out if they:

1. Deliver the work experience that A-list talent wants

This requires an in-depth knowledge of:

  • Current research about the drivers of employee engagement and how to design those into a work experience.
  • Research on human nature and the fundamental human needs that, when satisfied by work, lead to productive, passionate, committed employees.
  • Organizational and managerial practices that alienate A-list talent and need to be expunged from the organization.
  • Organizational and managerial practices that enable knowledge workers to perform at their best, in a sustainable way without burning out.
  • Constructive conversation skills that enable managers and their direct reports to have productive, “How can I help you be your best, love working here, and help us all succeed together?” conversations.

2. Deliver the work experience that works best for each, individual A-lister

Customizing the employee experience is the Holy Grail of high employee engagement and high performance. As Marcus Buckingham noted years ago, “Average managers play checkers while great managers play chess.” Great managers understand that a one-size-fits-all approach to managing doesn’t work. Smart employers are beginning to realize that individualizing the employee experience will play a major role in their ability to compete for talent and help each employee make the biggest possible contribution.

Every human being is an individual, and every employee has their own individual, unique engagement recipe.

Knowing how to create this recipe requires knowing how to engage employees in the “How can I help you be your best, love working here, and help us all succeed together?” conversations that provide managers with the information they need to bring out the best in their employees.
3. Identify and then minimize, or eliminate when possible, rules, processes, and communication practices that frustrate A-list talent and interfere with their ability to make the most valuable contribution possible.

Implementing positive changes will yield minimal results if your A-list talent finds themselves continually frustrated and thwarted by inadequate resources, unnecessary red tape and excellence-stifling bureaucracy or poor communication. These and other obstacles keep A-list talent from producing the world-class results that keeps them motivated and provides the most value to their employer.

This again requires gathering information from your A listers to find out what these sources of frustration are and then working to minimize, or eliminate them, if possible.

Get serious about your “greatest asset”

If you are serious when you say “Our employees are our greatest asset” and you recognize that your A-list talent are your key to your success, find out how happy they are, find out what you can do together to make their work experience even more rewarding and how you can work together to help create the conditions that enable them to do the world class work that keeps them motivated and happy to come to work for you, and not for your competitor.

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