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Retaining and Maximizing Talent in the 21st Century

I recently read an article entitled The Talent Innovation Imperative in Strategy + Business that stated that we are caught in the 20th century model of employee management. Leadership recognizes the value of employees to differentiate the company (“the only asset that innovates”) but does not align employees’ unique capabilities with the strategic business goals.

I would also take that statement and turn it around: Leadership and management do not always take the time to draw a clear line of sight between key business goals and the role of individual employees.

The first statement means we have wasted talent due to poor job-fit. The second means that talent is wasted because employees often do not understand that their roles directly impact strategic company goals and that their work is critical to the success of the overall business. In other words, they often do not recognize the best approachs to tasks done within their roles to align with company goals and do not feel important enough to understand that how they do their jobs matters.

The article goes on to state that there has been a falling level of commitment on the part of employees towards the companies that employ them. ”… the commitment of employees is most needed in a crunch, and that commitment is all too easy to lose. Surveys conducted by the Center for Work–Life Policy (CWLP) show that between June 2007 and December 2008, the number of employees expressing loyalty to employers plunged ….”  This is not surprising considering the job instability brought on by the recent recession, but if we look at the larger picture, the business landscape has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Lifetime employment as a corporate promise has disappeared. People in the workforce are all too aware of downsizing or rightsizing that has become a cyclical event as the economy swings up and down. People feel expendable at every level. Currently a friend in a senior position at a major Canadian telco is bracing for restructuring that is expected to see whole departments eliminated. People now feel it is every man (or woman) for himself and if an opportunity presents itself elsewhere they have little allegiance to their current employer.

At the same time retaining talented individuals is more important than ever. As the market globalizes and technology requires rapid changes in how business is done, innovation is even more essential to achieving competitiveness. You never know where innovation will germinate. It could be someone born and raised China in your finance department who provides insight into culturally-based preferences of the marketplace. It could be a salesperson in the field who recognizes a hidden customer need. Overall though it is the brightest people in your company who will present the nuggets of innovative thought that can put your company out front.

So, how to retain key talent? It is no longer enough to maintain a quasi-military structure of communication that flows one way, top down, with an expectation of orders being followed blindly. People want to feel engaged in their work and recognized for their contribution because the accompanying sense of fulfillment is one of the rewards they get for the work that they do. This is a compelling reward that can offset perceived loss of perpetual job security in the 21st century.

Employee Engagement falls along a spectrum from Actively Engaged through Neutral to Actively Disengaged

The employee at the actively disengaged end of the spectrum is the one who poisons the work atmosphere with negative talk about the company. The actively engaged individual is involved and energetic in their work. They proactively present ideas, put in effort to complete a project with excellence and help create a harmonious atmosphere in the workplace with their positive outlook.

The more a person feels important to and valued by the company the more engaged they tend to be. Very important to this is having a line of sight between an employee role and the accomplishment of the key strategic goals. This understanding accomplishes two things.

1 – People who believe that their work has real consequence to the organization feel a sense of purpose that can move people toward the actively engaged side of the engagement spectrum.

2 – Aligning their work with the company’s strategic goals generally includes ensuring an understanding of the priority importance of certain actions to the attainment of these goals. When someone realizes that by paying particular attention to certain aspects of their work they will have a real impact on the entire company they tend to prioritize these things and undertake them with care.

Well-structured company communications are key to employee engagement. It is essential to establish channels of communication to give employees regular information on big picture goals and how their own individual roles support these. Strategic use of multiple channels is ideal because, for messaging to be retained and acted upon, employees need to receive consistant information and direction from e-newsletters, live meetings, email blasts and also from their own direct managers.

It is also critical to establish two-way communication.  Providing an upward channel of communication, accessible to employees at every level, enables new and potentially innovative ideas to flow to where they will be useful in the organization.  This also makes a clear statement that employees and their ideas are valued, a key factor in attaining genuine employee engagement. According to the Watson Wyatt  Worldwide Secrets of Top Performers 2007/8 Report “High Performing Companies Are… ten times as likely as low-performing companies to give employees a voice.”

Concrete compensation is of course a factor in engagement, as are other elements such as an employees work conditions or their relationship with an immediate manager but it is the intangible sense of making an impact on the business and seeing that their efforts towards this are recognized by the company that seem to have an even stronger impact on engagement.

Will creating two-way communication channels and ensuring that your managers draw a line of sight between corporate goals and the roles of their direct reports ensure that all key talent is retained? Probably not. There are always personal life situations that take people out of a company. But attrition will be lower and in-house talent will be more engaged. Instead of watching the clock your employees will be strategically applying their talents towards accomplishing the most important company goals.

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