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I just came back from a wonderful vacation (hence no new entries) with family. I got quite an earful from all the 30 somethings about their job situations. They are all advanced degree professionals in various fields, successful, receiving promotions/raises/positive evaluations and some were enjoying interesting assignments. But mostly I heard some hair curling stories about unhappy work stuff. I’ll grant you that this is not a representative sample but when I put their tales together with loads of others I have been hearing from their counterparts in many organizations, it got my gears turning.

In spite of all the corporate initiatives and leadership attention on retaining the top talent, are we really doing enough of the right things?

These are the themes I hear from managers, directors and VPs.

  • They feel tremendously under utilized or challenged. At first I thought this was bravado (you know, those spoiled everyone-gets-a-trophy types). Then I listened more closely. These highly educated and competent folks are doing an inordinate amount of scut work for their bosses; writing and refining presentations to the board, responding to minutiae (via urgent calls) on the weekends, fetching water! When they described the big projects they were working on they oozed boredom and repetition. Some of this I chalk up to the realities of corporate life…the time suck of administrative tasks. But many of these people have raised their hands for more responsibilities and bigger projects only to be turned down. Hey, I thought that was the essence of talent retention???
  • It is hard to find people in the system who will advocate for your advancement. Some people have committed mentors or good bosses or lots of positive regard. But when it came down to getting a plum assignment about half of these people felt that support disappeared at the moment of truth. What’s that all about?
  • There is no getting around the work-life tensions. We’ve all read the same books. These 20-40 somethings want a better quality of life where their lives outside of work get nurtured. I can list loads of programs to show the company’s commitment: virtual work locations, summer Fridays off, health club memberships, flexible work schedules to accommodate family needs, unlimited vacation days, play areas in the work setting. But there are two things that make all these efforts useless. One is that work has become a global 24/7 proposition so the boundaries between work and home no longer exist. But the more unspoken reality is this: the cultural expectation at most companies is still show up, face time, work long hours, do whatever it takes. Just reflect on any feedback session you’ve had in the past year and tell me you didn’t hear stuff like “Although I’m personally supportive of you working from home my boss just doesn’t understand that you are totally productive.”
  • They are willing to put up with bad bosses for only so long. I’ve written in the past about bad bosses so I won’t repeat myself here. But the punch line is that top talent won’t tolerate being treated like shit. They will do their best to make the situation palatable. They will report the situation to higher authorities. But if the bad behavior does not improve, they will leave. Again, is this the best we can do to retain our top talent?

I don’t want to paint too broad a brush stroke here. There are many well intentioned companies trying their best to attract and keep great people. Some of these initiatives are helpful and some actually get the desired results. But I think it is time to cut through the crap and get down to brass tacks.

As a senior leader in your company, do you…

  • Truly believe that people who are not physically in the office are being optimally productive? Or do you surmise they are doing their laundry or running errands or watching TV or picking up the kids when they should be working?
  • Maintain a deeply held belief that the most ambitious people are the ones who put in the longest hours? If you walk in by 7:30 in the morning and don’t leave before 7:30 at night are you disappointed when you don’t see loads of people still at their desks? And if you can’t see people physically present do you assume they are not working?
  • Believe that these whippersnappers ought to pay the same dues you did on your way up? And that they need to understand there are trade offs? Sure, you didn’t have much quality time with your children but you were able to provide them with the best private educations your hard earned money could buy.
  • Take the time for regular physical activity and vacations and leave the office early some days to pick your kids up? Do you have things you are passionate about doing outside the office? And do you engage in those activities without guilt?
  • Look the other way or defend the poor behavior of your peers? Do you justify their awful actions with the disclaimer of their value to the business? Even after watching the turnover on their teams do you stand by this person?
  • Support a promotion for a high performer even if the assignment will be a challenge? Do you imagine yourself taking extra time to guide that person to success or do you pull back in favor of finding someone who doesn’t need as much attention?
  • Treat some of your direct reports like they are your personal assistants? Do you feel entitled (because of your status or track record) to demand that a highly trained person must routinely pick up lunch for you? Do you comprehend how much that lunch delivery is costing the company?
  • Hesitate when a top performer asks for a raise, promotion, additional responsibility or a lead role on a project? Are you mentally sorting out the politics or the resource issues or other concerns not related to the person’s abilities?
  • Have a habit of hunting down great assignments or promotions for your people? Or do you wait until they make noise?

I think you get my point. You can have all the great corporate initiatives but if the leader holds certain strong beliefs then you’re stuck. Until you (the leader) believe that virtual work is a great idea (which the research is proving to be true) and that how you came up the ladder may be antiquated and you can’t condone bad behavior in anyone and that you have to constantly create opportunities for your best people…you won’t be able to hold on to your top talent. This is about old habits dying hard, values and work morphing into a 24/7 operation. You can try to change this through programs but deep and real change won’t happen until you face down some of your own biases.

Rather than design a new retention program I suggest that senior leaders have a frank (dare I say “real”?) discussion to uncover underlying thoughts and beliefs that prevent them from shifting the culture. Until you can look yourself in the mirror and admit “Yep. She was probably ready for that new role but she only had 8 of the 10 boxes checked off so I just didn’t want to take the risk” you will continue to lose those very people that you know are the future of the company. In the end, doing right by the top talent is more about you than them.

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