In today’s COVID-impacted world of work, being a great manager and being able to retain your employees is more important than ever and harder than ever.
“To lead people, walk behind them.” — Lao Tzu
“Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” — Bill Bradley
If you are reading this piece, most likely you are already a good manager. And, you have the humility to realize that there is an opportunity for improvement. So, in many ways, you are already primed for success in this aspect of your professional journey.
Why Am I Writing This?
I hear a lot of stories about experiences in the workplace from those starting their careers and those in the middle of their careers. The most common themes are: “I’m not feeling valued”, “there is no clear development plan for me” and “I am not having career path discussions.”
My immediate reaction is that better management would ameliorate a lot of these employee concerns.
I am primarily motivated to write this piece based on the experiences of my two young-adult sons who have had internships and jobs both pre-COVID and now during COVID. They have had some good managers. And, they hope for better ones.
I will walk you through why great management matters more than ever and then offer some suggestions on how to improve your management behaviors.
The Reality: Younger Employees are Feeling Estranged at Work
Microsoft research entitled the 2021 Work Trend Index revealed that 41% of employees were considering changing jobs. Many employees, particularly younger workers in Generation Z (18 to 25 years old), are feeling more estranged at work than older generations. This group has a greater need for purpose and connection. Face-to-face connection, especially informal talk, is at a minimum due to restrictions imposed by COVID. And purpose, often enhanced by shared group experiences, is harder to build when we are focused primarily on task-based outcomes.
The Demand for Employees is Really High
The level of job openings in America is at its highest ever. A Department of Labor survey (released in early August 2021) put the number of job openings at 10.1 million as of the last day of June 2021. Hiring is exceeding separations leading to a falling unemployment rate.
Employees Want More Flexibility
In an environment where remote work is now the norm, companies are excited that they can hire people from anywhere, vastly opening up the pool of applicants.
What companies forget is that employees can take jobs in any location and are not restricted to roles within a reasonable commute from their home. And overall, most people prefer more flexibility including a hybrid or fully-remote work arrangement.
The Result: An Unprecedented Level of Resignations
People are re-evaluating their commitment to the current job as well as function, and deciding to change paths / jobs in record numbers.
This period in white-collar employment circles is being referred to as “The Great Resignation.” In 2019 the number of people leaving their job voluntarily rose to almost 28 million, an all time high. In just the first six months of 2021, the total number of people voluntarily leaving their job is 21 million.
What Can You Do To Retain Your Employees?
Here are some suggestions for behaviors you can adopt or double-down on.
Strategy 1: More and Better Communication
Talk individually with your team members. Both direct reports and those further down the org. chart. Talk to them regularly. For direct reports, hold weekly 1:1s. Ask them about what matters to them beyond work. Get to know them as a “fuller” person. When you know someone beyond their job, it is easier to create a bond of loyalty. Feedback offered to a person who sees you as a “work friend” or a “mentor” gets received much less defensively. The recipient knows you like them as an individual, and are only offering thoughts on their performance on a specific project.
Ensure your weekly 1:1s are really effective. This meeting belongs to the person who reports to you. Encourage them to speak. Offer a format but let them drive the discussion. And then, listen to them. See this piece from OpenView on Better 1:1 Meetings. Try your best to not to cancel or miss these meetings. If you must reschedule, keep it in the same week.
Communicate with your whole team. More than you think you need to do. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Share information that you have learned from Leadership Team meetings or other equivalent team meetings or cross-functional discussions. Timely and regular e-mail works well for detailed stuff. The more people feel they understand about the business and its direction, the safer and more in control they feel.
Strategy 2: Ensure People are Seen and Valued
Help people see their unique gifts. Everyone has unique talents, or what is often called a “superpower” in current HR-speak. Ask them how they can use these gifts to influence the workplace, their team, or their role. Given them a chance to make a positive difference in the business or the workplace environment.
Focus on people’s strengths. Everyone has weaknesses. Not all those weaknesses should be solved or become an important task for the person to fix. Good managers will differentiate between glaring weaknesses that are “fatal” in a role from those that can be offset by the strengths of others. Build teams (in a function and particularly on a project) that combine people with different strengths.
Recognize people. Everyone wants to feel valued. Recognition helps. Sometimes it should be in public, and other times just a positive comment directly to them is enough. Most importantly, the recognition must be authentic, because people can see through things done simply to check a box.
When providing feedback, keep the “good” and “bad” stuff separate. No one likes a “shit sandwich” (a good comment, followed by a criticism to be corrected, and then closed off with something positive.) People only remember the bad stuff and anything you truly meant as a positive is lost.
Strategy 3: Seek Input from the Team
Ask about how to make work better for them. While this sounds like management 101, this is done much less frequently than I would expect. Get suggestions from the person doing the job. Make it safe for them to offer any advice, no matter how critical it might be of existing processes (or other people). When they do offer criticisms, ask them for suggestions to make things better.
You don’t have to immediately implement all the suggestions. I suspect you will learn something by just having this conversation. If you come across as genuinely interested, your team members will simply appreciate that you asked. This approach helps build trust. And trust is critical to retaining people and getting the best out of them.
Be curious about their hopes in the job. Ask them open-ended questions such as, “What do you hope for out of this role?” Simply ask the question; then listen for the answer. Prompt them again and in different ways if the first answer seems incomplete or worthy of more discussion. Remember, this is not an easy question to answer. You are there to listen. Whatever they answer is acceptable. Simply asking the question, does not mean you have to meet their request.
Strategy 4: Go Beyond the Immediate Job. Focus on their Development and Career.
Talk to them about their development. At least twice a year, sit down with each of your team members individually to talk about their career goals. Ask them to think about what they want over the next few years (it is hard to think farther out than that for many people.) Figure out how you might be able to help them get to where they want to be. It doesn’t have to be in the current organization.
Ensure your people know the career ladder. Partner with your HR team about career pathing within your organization. Spend time to learn the levels and salary ranges. Understand what the market compensation rate is today for the roles that report to you. Every employee, particularly those who are young and ambitious wants to know what it takes (skills, accomplishments, time) to get to the next level.
Be proactive. Don’t let your management style be influenced by “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” approach. If you notice you are “reacting” often, then you have a problem. For example, on performance reviews — schedule them. Don’t wait until you are asked. Even if the company’s formal review cycle is not for a while, keep track of how your team members are performing on specific tasks through the weekly 1:1 process. This way you can always provide a quick, informal performance review on short notice.
Invest Time and Effort in Keeping Your People
It is conventional wisdom that it is much cheaper, easier, and more valuable to the business to retain a customer than acquire a new one. This applies to the talent within your organization and function too.
While not every employee will be a good fit for your organization, the single biggest reason that people leave (or stay) with a company is the quality of and relationship with their manager.
Work at being a better manager. It is work.
Your efforts will pay dividends in multiple ways. You will get the satisfaction of making a difference in people’s lives. Your colleagues and bosses will notice. And your team will function better.
Want to grow your leadership skills with a community of like-minded professionals?
Learn about the Journey CxO community.