Can I Retain The Right People?

Most new managers do not realize that retaining good people is a part of their job. In reality, many of these managers are rated on the attrition levels in their team. As managers, when one of our direct report leaves, there are several repercussions. We may, as supervisors, feel disappointed and rejected. More importantly, the work the former employee was doing does not go away. As supervisors, we are still responsible for the work assigned to the unit or team. We have to pick up the work and train a replacement.

Not all attrition, however, is bad. Mid-size organizations do not have enough of a buffer to accommodate and promote non-performers. Mid-size employers may welcome the departure of poor performers who don’t contribute to the bottom line. It saves managers from having to lay them off, which can upset other employees. In contrast, in large organizations, even poor performers can go unnoticed without significantly impacting company results.

In my experience, many managers avoid conflict when it comes to their own people. Hiring and training a new employee is difficult and time-consuming. There is no guarantee that the new hire will be better than the current non-performer. Terminating a person (even a non-performer) creates a sense of insecurity in the team. As a result, managers delay tough decisions about removing non-performers in the hope that things will improve over time or the non-performers will go away on their own.

There is healthy attrition and there is unhealthy attrition. Most employers are concerned about unhealthy or undesirable attrition, where some of the top performers are leaving to work for other organizations (hopefully not a competitor!).

Besides competitive compensation, interesting work, and recognition, what can a manager do to retain great people so that these crises don’t take place? Succession planning exercises can only take you so far. The answer to retaining great people may be as simple as asking them what they need. To learn more about employees’ needs, managers should conduct regular stay interviews with their direct reports. These interviews consist of asking several open-ended questions aimed at discovering what employees find satisfying and dissatisfying about their jobs. Managers should also gather ideas from the employees about how the company can retain top performers.

Most of us are hesitant to conduct stay interviews because we are afraid that better performing employees may plan to leave. Avoiding the topic won’t prevent the employees from leaving. If a person is planning on leaving, we can only delay their departure or change their mind in 10 percent of cases. We have found that once people have made up their mind to formally resign from the company, we are rarely effective at getting them to stay with us for any extended duration. This is why it is crucial to conduct stay interviews early on as well as properly train employees to ensure that they are comfortable and competent in their jobs.

The above post is an excerpt from my book, What I Did Not Learn in B-school, Insights for New Managers. The book examines key common issues faced by new and aspiring managers.

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