• 03.05.10

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?