How Trusted Leaders Retain Key Employees

Rob Galford, co-author of a highly successful series of books on trust – from The Trusted Advisor to The Trusted Leader - and founder of The Center for Leading Organizations, shares his advice for retaining your best performers as economic recovery brings them free agent opportunities.

"I encountered an episode of this syndrome quite recently," reported Rob the other morning.  

"A client of mine was prematurely mourning the loss of a high potential young woman to the competition.  The employee is phenomenal at operations – a six sigma Olympian – but the boss knew that she had been frustrated by long hours and lack of opportunity for the last couple of years.  He suspected that she was beginning to respond to some interested parties who might be able to offer a step up the ladder a little sooner than he could. He felt he had no levers to pull to keep her."  

Hopeless? Certainly not.  "True, she was the best in operations. But she needed much firmer rooting in finance," Rob pointed out.  "The retention solution was to have a very honest discussion with her.  The message had to be both sincere and clear: we want you to stay, we want you to grow, and we want to accomplish both of those things by sending you to the best finance course we can find.  We will invest in you if you will continue to work with us."

That approach can be summarized as Grow and Stay. "It’s the best card you have to play," Rob asserts "But it can’t be a hollow gesture, or it can backfire. The leader cannot ask that plaintive, empty question: ‘How can we keep you?’  The leader has to show the initiative to signal that he or she has been paying attention and really cares."  It is up to the leader to propose a plan to boost strengths and shore up weaknesses.  Of course, the message cannot be that the company wants the employee to be something she is not.  According to this trust expert, the signal that must be sent is:  "Our paths are converging.  We would like to create a developmental opportunity that will provide you new challenges and prepare you for the future with us."

Good advice, certainly, but especially hard to make stick with a certain group of valuable employees. "We all know them and we all value them," says Rob.  "I am talking about the under 40, high achieving professionals who are already operating with expertise and energy at relatively high levels in the organization.  The problem is not so much with them personally as with the organization: we just can’t give them  the division presidency, or head of a region or whatever it is they really crave and believe that they deserve." 

Smart, self-aware, trained, chomping at the bit, these folks are usually very impatient and hate not knowing what their opportunities are. The key here as a trusted leader, says Rob, is "to calibrate mutual expectations around clear milestones and timeframes.  For example:  ‘You are intellectually ready but you need more seasoning, more experience. So, you’re not going to get the big job yet.  We’re going to throw some more challenges at you. If, however, within [pick a time frame] we aren’t doing X for you, then you are well within your rights to move on."


Good advice. What are others hearing?

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  • Robin LeBlanc

    Why CAN'T the leader ask her what she would want in order to stay? Long hours and lack of opportunities - long hours can be seen, but does the leader know or only assume that she wants to move up at this point? If she is in her early 40's perhaps what she really craves is more time with her family (if she has one). Perhaps she just feels that she is not getting recognition. Could be a number of things.

    The leader's solution (she needs more finance background so send her to classes) will help the current company but is that what SHE wants?

    This type of thinking is stuck in a past that is disappearing. Motivating people is not just about giving more money or prestige or promises of rewards if certain conditions are met. Daniel Pink's Drive provides an alternative and powerful view of what motivates people - as he says himself, the answers will surprise you, as they have behavioral scientits for years ... Perhaps the leader should read it.

  • Phil Ayres

    Having a growth path for employees should be not only be targeted at those considered exceptional and most valuable, but also designed to improve the vast majority of workers that businesses rely on to operate every day. The honest approach (calibrate mutual expectations, etc) should, in my opinion be a facet of the way every manager in an organization works, and should be encouraged through leadership development and reviews.

    In my experience, one area that companies overlook is the fact that their business processes and operating practices make the company into a chaotic place for great employees to work. Constantly fighting fires is an indicator to me that there are other issues in the organization that are due attention. Addressing one side, employee development, without addressing business processes can be counter productive and lead to great people leaving out of sheer frustration.

    Phil Ayres

  • Rob Galford

    Let's not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Not all of us are perfectly trusted leaders. At least, not yet. Christine Maingard is absolutely right in her comment that trusted leaders should be able to "read the signs", yet even highly-trusted leaders may miss those signs, or not catch them in time. Some simply have so much on their plates, or are fighting such large-scale fires that they can't anticipate or act on every single thing they "should do" in as timely a manner as they (or we) might wish. The situation as originally described is an example of that reality. The good news in that case is that it actually DID work.

  • Christine Maingard

    Interesting article with advice that rarely works, however. Once those smart under 40s indicate that they are ready to move on (or even hand in their resignation letter because they think the grass is greener elsewhere), there is usually not much that can be done to keep them. They have more or less made up their minds. What's more, it's often not in the best interest of the organisation to get them to stay because if they do, there's always a level of dissatisfaction with the current situation and even negativity about what they may end up perceiving as empty promises.
    A trusted leader should be able to 'read the signs' long before an exit strategy is contemplated by a valued employee. A leader should also be trusted to an extend that such an employee can discuss what bothers him or her before it becomes an issue that leads to moving on (or contemplating such move) to the competition. If a leader is oblivious to this and if an employee has become frustrated by the long hours and lack of career opportunity (as is the cited case in the article), then the leader isn't really a 'trusted' one.

    Dr Christine Maingard
    Author of "Think Less, Be More"