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Employee Retention

Originally published on September 28, 2016

This is part 12 in the multi-part Blog on Executive Leadership.

People leave when they don’t feel appreciated. That’s why we’ve made recognition a really high value. Our business is people-capability first; then you satisfy customers; then you make money.”  — David Novak, CEO of YUM! Brands

How long do you think that your employees—at any level—are planning to stay with your organization? OK, not an easy question, right? Myriad factors influence employee retention, not the least of which is the type of organization you lead. In recent years, another major influencing factor has been the increased numbers of Millennials in the workforce. Why is this a factor? While their grandparents (and possibly even parents) focused on a lifelong establishment with and loyalty to a company, Millennials tend to focus on a more near-term period for endeavors—typically 2-5 years at a time. 

Some organizations are ideally suited for this new focus millennials bring to the workplace—such as the military, where members may have the option to change a job position every 18-24 months but may even change their type of organization and location every 3-5 years. In other words, the military provides a synthesis of an availability for upward mobility with the broad organization, while providing opportunities for new endeavors every 12-24 months and geographic mobility every 3-5 years.

The private sector is slowly learning this lesson, with many companies now providing lateral movement within each level of the organization to facilitate keeping career paths filled with opportunities for new and exciting work without having to wait years to move up the corporate ladder. This, however, is but one example of adaptive workplace management to help facilitate the changing perspectives of employees. Even though adaptive techniques may play a role in retention—and success, by the way—what if I told you that YOUR actions can be the determining factor between an employee who only commits a few years to your business OR one who commits their entire career to your company?

Many people in positions of authority ponder the best method by which to tackle the challenge of retention. From incentives, to bonuses, to environment, and so forth, the most important key to unlocking the retention puzzle is most often overlooked:

Be a Leader Instead of a Manager!

No matter what size organization you lead, at the core of every human being is the need to be challenged in order to achieve their potential, to be appreciated for their essence and their efforts, and to be led proactively rather than managed retroactively. Employees want to know that leaders and managers genuinely care about them, recognize the effort they put into their job and provide the necessary means for personal and professional development.

The essence of leadership is leading in such a way that you mentor new leaders from among your people. When employees are matched with a good leader or mentor, they begin to more effectively grow their skill set and reach outside their comfort zone, but they also are more likely to make a commitment to you—and potentially the organization—for the rest of their career. Of course, life happens (relocation, family, lifestyle preference), and variables in their lives may lead to a career change; however, as leaders, we must realize we have more power—and responsibility—in our hands than simply “getting the tasks done."

According to the Vice President of Business Development at Innovative Staff Solutions, Nathan Meinhart (2016), the following three recommendations will help you be a leader and a mentor, rather than a manager.

Influence Thinking. One of the things most managers can be guilty of is simply telling their employees what to do without challenging their thinking. For example, if your employee comes up to you with a problem he/she has encountered, instead of simply solving it for them, ask them what they think is the next best step. You can use this opportunity to challenge them to think like a manager and explain to them that a different option or idea may lead to a better result. By doing this, you didn’t just solve a problem – you also planted a leadership seed in them.

Invest Time. Furthermore, your employees know how valuable your time is. When you choose to invest it in them, they will see that you have confidence in their growth potential within the company. Of course, taking the time to influence the thinking of your employees (mentioned previously) can be time-consuming – we could all use a little more time. However, keep in mind that you don’t have to challenge every employee every time they come to you for input. Pick and choose who your potential future leaders are. Going the extra mile and giving your time will reap future leaders and managers for your company.

Reinvent. Within your position, redefine what it means to be a leader. Challenge yourself. Be creative. Step outside the box and break the mold of a stereotypical leader. Take time to figure out what works, but also give yourself room to grow – to see what doesn’t work and needs to be changed. Take Steve Jobs for example. His leadership style may not have been as conventional as others, but it worked. It worked for him and it still works for Apple today. Whether it’s a new way of approaching your employees, a creative way of presenting your safety training, or implementing a personal development program, begin to challenge what you’ve been doing and push your department to the “next big thing.”

Being a leader and mentor provides you with the tools to do more than simply help your organization progress and achieve its goals. Leadership is the key that will ultimately allow you to invest in your employees’ lives and see them grow out of their comfort zone into a leader in their own right. As a common saying goes,

“Train people well enough so they can leave, but treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

— Richard Branson

Your best employees will commit when they see leadership and potential for their continued growth. When you inspire them to do better—and acknowledge those things in which they already excel—employees will be motivated to go the extra mile for you…and commit to your organization!

But sometimes being the leader who pays attention to, invests time in, and helps improve the professional and personal conditions for employees is by itself not enough. In fact, that is the easy part of the formula for success. The mark of a truly innovative leader is the ability to not only foster trust and progress between themselves and employees, but also establish a workplace environment within which employees will form the critical component that propels organizations to higher levels of achievement—and the ability to attain the goals that lead to realizing the organization’s vision. TEAMWORK.

Five Ways Leaders Can Improve Employee Retention

Many believe that primary responsibility for employee retention resides at the manager level, but it is especially important that senior leadership be acutely aware of the critical role they play in employee retention. As head of a mid-sized business and decades of observing other organizations of various sizes, Rick Blabolil (2014) provided his key guidance on ways leadership can exert a positive influence on employee retention:

Get behind a generous benefits package. Organizations that treat employees well with meaningful benefits packages that include generous vacations and work-from-home opportunities, for example, are shown to have lower turnover and significantly higher financial performance. And who determines these kinds of perks? Although HR has significant input, it’s the C-suite that ultimately gives the “go-no go” on benefits packages.

Do the soft stuff—in person. Senior management recognition of a job-well-done by someone at a different layer in the organization goes a long way toward making an employee feel appreciated and valued, both strong factors influencing employees to stay. Do it in person and do it often. The few minutes spent to express a genuine “thank you” one-on-one will be remembered for a long time.

Be open, be present. Good leaders “show up.” They are visible and they communicate, with openness and transparency. This is especially important during difficult times when visible leadership and honest communication can help allay uncertainty—and uncertainty can be an ingredient for turnover.  Honest communication from leadership also conveys respect for employees, another factor that positively affects retention.

Live your organization’s values. Nearly all organizations talk about their values. And most try to live them. But it’s especially important for senior leadership to consciously live those values, in the workplace and during off-hours as well. It all comes down to trust: if leadership says one thing but does another, what happens to trust? This kind of disconnect is toxic to retention.

Create a culture of engagement. This isn’t a job just for HR or your management team. Real engagement is an attitude, and it’s an attitude that is ignited from the top and permeates the entire organization. Think of how you can show that you really care about the organization. Demonstrate your commitment to improving all aspects of your organization, not just the bottom line. And always treat colleagues with respect, especially in the most difficult or heated situations.  These are just a few of the ways that you model engagement and generate a culture of engagement.

“Hanging on” ≠  Retention

There is a big difference between retention and “hanging on.” Reflecting on today’s tight labor market, it is possible that healthy retention numbers also include those individuals who are simply “hanging on” until the job market improves. This is where leadership must work with management in committing to and implementing actions that drive retention. Take nothing for granted. Do the right things for the right reasons and good things happen—for everyone.


Next week will be part 13 of the series: Accountability


Blabolil, R. (2014, September 9, 2014). 5 things leaders can do to improve employee retention.  Retrieved from

Meinhart, N. (2016, March 28, 2016). How being a leader can impact your employee retention plan.  Retrieved from



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