What’s the key to keeping your best talent?

By Stuart Hodge

For any business, ensuring that you keep hold of your most talented members of staff in an often increasingly competitive job market can be the difference between sustained success and the possibility of stagnating or going backwards.

Indeed, a recent Willis Towers Watson study showed that more than half of all organizations globally have difficulty retaining some of their most valued employee groups and that more than a quarter of employees are considered ‘high-risk’ for turnover.

Most scholars would agree that motivation is at the heart of keeping a workforce happy and, according to a recent report by Forbes, establishing an emotional connection with staff is the key to ensuring a cohesive and inclusive culture around the company.

The Forbes study asked HR professionals what their biggest challenges are related to corporate culture and they said overwhelmingly that creating a cohesive culture (55%) and retaining talent (41%) gave them the most concern.

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Lola Gershfeld, Psy.D, Board Dynamics Specialist and CEO at Level Five Executive, says creating that emotional connection can be done using a three-stage plan called Board/Team Dynamics Process.

“When everyone is familiar with and understands one streamlined process the culture becomes much more cohesive,” she says. “Team members start speaking the same language and using the same tools to work through conflict. This is where you start to see some really positive changes.

“In our work, we’ve found that culture has to start from the top. Everyone tends to look up to learn behavior. This is backed up by a recent study from Duke University that says 52% of executives feel culture is primarily set by the current CEO. And, while boards of directors do not directly choose the firm’s culture, they influence the choice of culture by picking the CEO.

“Boards also modify the eventual success of the culture by reinforcing or undermining it through their approach in addressing challenges together and making that emotional connection with the executive team.

“So, to have a long-term effect on culture, you have to start with the board and the executive team. This might seem overwhelming, but in that same study, 91% of executives said culture is important at their firm and 78% view culture as one of the top three or top five factors that affect their firm’s value. Executives and boards understand the value of culture and they are looking for long-term solutions.

“Improving culture is within arm’s reach. We know how to fix culture for the long haul; it’s just a matter of committing to it. Addressing emotional connection is the way to arrive at a cohesive culture that retains and attracts talent.”

But this is just one approach to creating a positive culture within a company. For some companies, such as the Star Entertainment Group in Australia, it’s more about creating an operational identity and sense of belonging for employees.

“With over 4,500 staff, the real trick is to ensure that everyone is willing to act autonomously,” says Dino Mezzatesta, COO. “It’s important to have confidence and faith in your employees and support them to give their best. There are four things we ask our employees to do: live it, bring it, own it and deliver it.

“By ‘live it’ we mean that people need to understand guests and their expectations to ensure that what they provide is in keeping with what a customer wants. When we talk about ‘bringing it’, we want our people to always give of their best and to bring everything that they can to offer to our customers. ‘Own it’ means step up, don’t be afraid to take ownership of situations, to be brave and not to be scared to do things differently. And ‘deliver it’ is basically the final step, because if you do the top three then you should be able to be the perfect host.”

Given the Star Entertainment Group’s award-winning hospitality offering, there can be no doubt that this approach is working, but another important factor for businesses is ensuring that they are helping to develop the leaders of tomorrow as well.

Figures in the TalentKeepers Workplace America report show that a disappointing 36% of organizations are taking steps to develop leaders to drive engagement.

“Leaders need to be trained in employee engagement skills and must understand their role in retaining and motivating people," says Christopher Mulligan, TalentKeepers CEO and author of the report.

“The first step in leveraging leaders is determining how well they are currently doing and understanding specifically what training they need to become successful. Every leader should have engagement and retention goals, incentives to meet those goals, and consequences for failing to do so.”

Clearly the pressure to keep your best staff has never been greater and the lengths companies will go to in creating a positive working culture and environment are more creative than ever.

For Paul Alexander, Head of Indirect Procurement for EMEA with BP, the best way to ensure staff loyalty and to keep them happy in their work is by engaging employees on an intellectual level to stimulate and challenge them.

“My view is that inspiration and learning is really what people are turned on by these days and that’s what creates a successful team,” says Alexander, who is a bona-fide leadership expert and speaker with a passion for the subject.

“Something that compounded my thinking was research by Zenger and Folkman. They’ve written a couple of books, the first of which is called ‘The Extraordinary Leader’ and their research is absolutely fascinating. 

“They’ve found many things in their studies and they’ve used very, very large sample groups to test their assumptions. They have found very clearly that the ability for leaders to inspire interest and the resource and sincerity you put into development and learning are the things that will drive success.

“I do believe in a knowledge-based economy and a productive economy: you need to have people who want to work for you and are motivated and want to succeed. 

“The research on the millennial generation really underlines all of this, I think what they’re asking for which is to be treated with respect, not to be hugely well rewarded but to be sensibly and adequately rewarded but to be treated well and given the opportunity to learn and fulfill themselves.

“I think that’s what we all want; the difference now is that a lot of work has gone into listening to millennials who have a loud voice and I think and hope our workplace is evolving the way it needs to do for the benefit of us all.

“Another thing I would point to is the work of Dan Pink. What he says is three things really turn people on: autonomy, the freedom to do the job the way they want to do it; mastery, giving them the support to excel at what they do; and purpose, helping them find a reason to do what they do.

“If I could crystallize everything that I’m saying about leadership into one word it would be: inspiration. Within procurement, they can be the kind of people who turn up, place orders and do a commodity task, or they can be the people who save the company.

“My very strong belief is that when people come to work they should be able to have a good time and I don’t know why so many organizations struggle with that.”

Indeed, when Alexander breaks it down like that it is hard to fathom why so many companies find it difficult to create such a positive environment for staff to work in, and no doubt this issue is becoming increasingly important.

Research from Gallup shows that employees who are "engaged and thriving" are 59% less likely to look for a job with a different organization in the next 12 months.

Companies like German online clothing retailer Spreadshirt have an even more novel approach to creating that positive culture and ensuring that work is a fun place for employees to come into, as Philip Rooke, CEO, explains.

“We have a Feel Good Manager whose job it is to make Spreadshirt a great environment to work in and a big part of this job is organizing the company events. We always have a big summer party where family and friends, but also former Spreadsters, come together. Now we also have a “Spreadster exclusive” event, called Wandertag, like a summer outing.

“Talent retention isn’t a big problem for us. We have a great product and a great company, but we do not take that for granted. Like any company we have our bad days. Our culture and talent retention is led by our Head of Recruiting and Feel Good Manager.

“She’s responsible for the onboarding process for each new Spreadster, and improving workplace culture.  In particular she has brought in programs on management communication to improve the way we work with talent. If you respect and empower talent, it wants to stay.”

Words which should perhaps be borne in mind by companies who are worried about competitors poaching their most talented employees.


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