employee retention birds flying reflective management

What if I told you the best way to retain your employees was to sit down with them every few weeks and have a conversation about them leaving your company?  This retention strategy works.  It seems counterintuitive, but think about it this way.  The absolutely worst time to have a conversation about someone leaving our company or team is when they are telling you they are leaving.

This strategy works because it creates safety between the manager and employee. In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek makes the case that great leaders are those that can create safety for their organizations using examples from the military to manufacturing to illustrate the point.  Safety is a basic human need that comes from our evolution through dangerous times filled with saber tooth tigers to constant risk of starvation.

The Emotional Side Of Workplace Safety

Most tech company workplaces are pretty safe right?  You aren’t dealing with molten steel unexpectedly flying off the production line like the people in this video.  Worse case, you trip over a CAT6 cable.  But there are different types of safety.  Molten steel presents an immediate physical threat.  Safety at work is much more tied to our sense of identity and long term security.  So where is the danger in your manager / employee relationship?

  • A manager assesses the employee performance, which is tied to raises and bonuses, which is tied to quality of life
  • A manager could fire you which takes away your income and which affects your ability to pay for a place to live and food on the table
  • A manager could treat an employee badly which has an emotional cost
  • An employee could leave (or underperform), leaving the manager with work that isn’t getting done which reflects badly on the manager
  • An employee could be difficult or behave badly which makes a manager “look bad”
  • An employee may try to take the manager’s job

You can think of other examples. For clarity, I’m not saying that either employee or manager sits there, rubbing their hands at their machiavellian plan and consciously does one or all of these things.  It is the  possibility of these things happening that creates fear and diminishes a sense of safety.  These potential threats exist and are more evident in some organizations, and less in others.  The reason we’re uncomfortable talking about an employee leaving an organization is that it makes the danger of these hidden threats real and like most difficult conversations, it’s just easier just to ignore it.

What is it in talking about an employee leaving that creates safety?  Because the fact that the employee will leave sooner or later is a given.  It is an almost universal truth.  Acknowledging this fact changes the nature of the conversation.  It removes the fundamental fear because the fear is absolute and real.  The next step is to plan for that inevitable event.  There is a simple analog here.  We all KNOW that we should plan for retirement.  We all KNOW that we should write a will.  But many people don’t do these things despite their inevitability.

Retention Starts With You

When you consider using this retention strategy, the first question you need to ask yourself is:

Am I willing to admit that some day I WILL leave this job and this company and move somewhere else?

Because the truth is, you will.  If you’re comfortable with this truth for yourself, you’ll be comfortable talking about it with your employees.  The second question is then :

Am I willing to let myself believe that my employees will all eventually leave my team and go somewhere else?

This is much more difficult than it looks.  I’m not talking about an intellectual “knowing” of this fact, I’m talking about a heartfelt belief that this will come to pass.  Here’s a few things to think about :

  • How many people who were on the team in my first job are still there?
  • How many people who were on my last team are still there?
  • Has anyone ever left my team before?  What happened in the short term?  What happened in the long term?
  • Have people who have left my team moved onto jobs that they’ve loved? Am I a better or worse person for that?

Once you’ve got really comfortable with this, you’re ready to begin your anti-retention conversation.

I recommend structuring your conversation this way :

  1. Acknowledge the inevitable
  2. Talk about what’s next
  3. Help them move toward what’s next

Acknowledge The Inevitable

This is where the two questions you asked yourself earlier come into play.  Your employee needs to be able to feel your absolutely belief and acceptance that they will eventually leave. We’re much better at detecting people who are BSing us than we give ourselves credit for.   I typically start these conversation saying :

“In tech companies, its pretty normal for people to change jobs every two or three years.  In 2 or 3 years one or both of us will be doing something different. What’s most important to me is that while we’re working together, we’re getting you ready for whatever that next step is.”

Talk About What’s Next

Your employee may already have a clear idea of “what’s next” for them.  They may need some help.  Being “career coach as manager” is a topic for another day.  Some people have more practice at this than others.  But I can tell you employees appreciate managers who take an interest in their growth.  But if they don’t know where they want to go next, you can help by providing some first steps.  Connect them with a mentor who is good at helping people think through career transitions.  Ask them questions about companies they admire. Jobs they see other people doing that seem interesting.  Encourage them to think outside simply “moving up the ladder” in your team.

There are some important rules for you in this conversation :

  1. You must be authentic in your desire to help
  2. You must be free of the fear that this person will eventually leave
  3. You should reassure them you aren’t trying to get them to leave
  4. You should emphasize the important role they play on your team
  5. You should conclude this conversation by thanking them for being willing to talk about this with you.

Help Them Move Toward It

This is where you show your sincerity.  If you’re having a conversation about their next move, but without any action, it’s an empty and insincere conversation.  What are the concrete things you can do to move them toward their goal?  Are there side projects in the area that they want to work on?  Are there people in the org who would be willing to teach them in the area they want to move into?  Is it possible for them to “intern” at another team?  Could you be radical and allow them to “intern” at a target company for a while?  There’s a balance here.  For example, I had an employee who wanted to go from test to dev.  We had him interview for some open positions on the dev team, but he didn’t have the skills yet to take the position.  But he did learn what he didn’t know yet, which gave him some areas to focus on moving forward. 

Surprising Results

In my last role I was leading a large engineering team.  The company had shaky financial performance, we were building great products that were performing poorly in the market and layoffs were a possibility.  These are conditions that don’t lend themselves to retention.  Despite that, only 2 managers left.  In both cases test leads who wanted to be dev managers where we didn’t have openings.  And most importantly, neither was a surprise because of the conversations we’d had.  Turnover in the rest of the team was significantly lower than company average.

Earlier, I mentioned a tester who wanted to shift into a dev role.  I know, lesson learned there.  I didn’t do a good job with the test to dev path!  We did what we could within the bounds that we had.  We had a high power dev team that didn’t feel they could train him on the job.  We found some other ways to help him build his dev skills.  Eventually, he came to me to tell me he had interviewed for a position in another company, a small but well funded startup.  They were looking for people with broad skills and his dev / test combo was attractive to them.

He came to ask my advice.  Should he take the job?

We broke it down.  Talked about the company, how they got work done, the potential rewards and how he would fit into the company.  It was a great fit for him.  He took the job.  What was magical about that conversation was that it took place in complete safety.  He knew he could trust me to help make the best decision for him.  He didn’t fear repercussions if he decided to stay put.

It may seem strange that I end this post about the “best retention strategy” with a story about someone leaving the team.  The point of this retention strategy isn’t to keep people with your team forever.  That’s called servitude.   This is about improving communication between managers and employees through  genuine care, authenticity and a willingness to explore challenging topics.  And with that as a base, retention is significantly more likely.

Originally posted as a guest post on : http://blog.anthology.co/talent-retention