Retention Failures

Scott Francis
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Eric Jackson of Forbes recently wrote the Top Ten Reasons Why Large Companies Fail to Keep Their Best Talent. The article lays out some very good reasons why top talent gets frustrated with big companies. But the focus is still too much on secondary effects.  My thoughts on a few of the points: #1 : Bureaucracy. “No one likes rules that make no sense. But, when top talent is complaining along these lines, it’s usually a sign that they didn’t feel as if they had a say in these rules.”  Actually, there are just too many rules.  Big companies have the resources to actually have bureaucracy that makes the lives of top talent easier, not harder.  But they don’t take advantage of that capability, because it shows up as a hard expense that can be cut.  When the economy is strong you see startups and smaller firms offering free dry cleaning or laundry service (or if not free, convenient in-office pickup).  There are free meals and caffeine at the office.  This is convenient for employees and saves them time out of their lives.  But for some reason most companies cut back both on the perks, and on the benefits of large size, as they get bigger.  Instead of requiring employees to fill out a lot of paperwork for expense reports, make it easy for them to send in their expenses and pay lower-skilled labor to process them.  Or set policies that require fewer receipts for reimbursement and thereby reduce the total bureaucracy.  Use per diems.  Have a travel group that adds value in booking and rebooking flights and hotel reservations.  Have administrative help that helps produce critical paperwork without a lot of barriers to entry and TPS forms to fill out. These are trivial examples, but wherever you can reduce the exposure your team has to bureaucracy or administrative work, the more productive and happy they’ll be. #2 : Finding the right project.  “they usually don’t have people going around to their best and brightest asking them if they’re enjoying their current projects or if they want to work on something new…” This item in particular seems hopelessly vague.  It almost sounds like the idea is that the top talent shouldn’t have to do any of the tough, dreary projects.  Who wouldn’t want to opt out of the project that takes them to Ottawa in the winter? (No offense intended, Ottawa!)  But there’s a kernel of truth within this point:  big companies have really interesting jobs to offer high performers.  But they (typically) don’t.  Those top performers aren’t afraid to ask for a better assignment or put their name in for promotion.  But they’re told they have to wait – “we don’t promote someone twice within one year.”  Or “you can’t get a raise of more than 3% a year”.  So they realize that to move up, they have to get some experience and then move out.  Possibly getting hired back in later on.   It isn’t that no one gets these fast-track promotions and assignments at big companies, but the percentages are vanishingly small.  The top 1% not the top 10 or 20 percent. #3 : Poor Annual Performance Reviews.  “You would be amazed at how many companies do not do a very effective job at annual performance reviews.”  Actually, no one with a job would be amazed by this.   Performance reviews are a broken process at nearly every company I’ve heard of, let alone worked at.  There are companies trying to fix that, like Rypple (now part of SalesForce), but the fix isn’t actually about annual reviews.  The fix is more feedback.  Reviews are largely a waste of time, and condescending to the employee.  The employer or manager sits in judgment and the employee is judged and much good feedback throughout the year is saved for an annual review instead of happening spontaneously.  The Annual Review becomes a marker around which unrealistic expectations get set – employees expecting golden reviews and promotions, employers disappointing them with perhaps neither.   The review process can make employers look quite petty. So what’s the fix?  When you have negative feedback for an employee, tell them right away.  Tell them what they’re screwing up.  While they can still do something about it.  When they’re doing something great, tell them quickly, while it is fresh on your (and their) minds.  Make sure other people hear about it so that good behavior becomes infectious.  We don’t do “reviews” at BP3, but our team communicates.  They can call to talk to me anytime, and I don’t hesitate to hit them up on Instant Messenger or the phone.  We don’t do raises on an annual schedule, we just do them when we think the timing is right.  We do regular bonuses which force us to acknowledge good or bad performance monetarily, in case our words – spoken and typed – aren’t getting the message across – good and bad. #4 : No Career Development.  Well, this is actually nearly impossible in small companies to do in a structured way. The promise a small company can hold out is that as the company grows, opportunities for employees will grow as well.  A lot of the career development is personal growth and attacking ambiguous problems (filling in the white space).  At a large company, I’d recommend managers talk to their top talent about their own aspirations for those people.  What do you want to help them achieve?  Don’t expect them to come to the table with an answer when they may not have a sense of what is possible.  But experienced executives and managers do know – and can help lay out a path or ladder that actually motivates talented people. But keep in mind, there are always some people who aren’t motivated by a ladder, or competition.  They’re good at what they do, and they know it, but they don’t care about your external validation of that performance.  These are the toughest people to keep happy on a purely professional basis.  If you have one of these high performers on your team, make friends.  Friendship and loyalty may be the only thing that keeps you two working together. And someday you may want to get a job working for them instead of the other way around! #5 :  Shifting Whims.  “The challenge for most organizations is not setting up a strategic prioirty, like establishing an incubator, but sticking with it a year or two from now.  Top talent hates being ‘jerked around.’”  Well, this one is spot on.  What’s worse than not having a good recruiting program?  Setting one up and then stopping it 3 months in.  It takes time to recruit the right talent, develop a talent pipeline that works.  When you shut it down for more than a week or two, starting up again takes another 3 months or more for the pipeline to pan out.  You’ve lost all the momentum.  Having the rug pulled out from under something you’re excited about sucks. #8 :  The Missing Vision Thing.  This one can be hard when you’re smaller.  It is helpful to have a humble or modest bearing in general.  Under-promise, over-deliver.  But as you grow, as things start to fall into place, you can share the vision with your early conspirators (your team!).  Eventually you step out and communicate with the world at large.  The same approach works well for team-level vision at a company.  But big companies can have bigger visions of how they’ll change the world or the landscape.  Then the real trouble coming up with something that is expansive without sounding too trite or generic (I don’t have to name names, we can all think of a few in this category). It is just a matter of using your size to your benefit, and to the benefit of your top talent.