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Keeping People

Dear Dave
After many years of very low annual staff turnover, we find that over the last couple of years we have been experiencing an ever increasing rate of staff attrition that has us concerned. We’re stumped as to why. We have made it a point to exit interview most of the folks who have left in an effort to try to understand the reasons, but we don’t see any clear pattern. Based on what we are being told, they are generally not leaving for more pay or benefits. Instead, we are hearing comments like “ready for a change”, or “for personal reasons”. How can we improve our retention rate and reverse this disturbing trend?

Dear TS
A fundamental key to good retention is having a well organized and well managed firm offering plenty of support and opportunities for people to achieve their maximum potential as professionals and as individuals. If the environment your firm creates for its staff does not provide this, sooner or later, the good ones, the ones with the abilities and the options to go elsewhere, are at a high risk for leaving.

Begin by having a well defined strategic plan for the firm which is kept current and shared in some detail on a regular basis with everyone. The crew always does better when they understand where the ship is going. Beyond that, each person in your organization should understand their personal role and responsibilities and how their role relates directly toward achieving the firm’s overall goals and objectives.

Let your people know you are interested in their future. Are they technically minded or more interested in project or firm management? Do your best to understand the personal professional goals of each person and work to develop a clear path forward for how individuals may progress over time in your organization toward achieving their personal objectives. Provide them a roadmap for advancement and recognition so they will not feel the need to look outside.

Make certain your staff is kept well informed at all times. Over communicate versus under communicate. Kill the “rumor mill” by making it redundant. As a management consultant working with engineering firms day in and day out, I find lack of communication as being one of the most common complaints voiced by staff about the firms for whom they work. It is not good enough to proclaim that you have an “open door” policy where anyone can ask anything of anybody, senior staff must take the initiative and be proactively reaching out to folks at all times.

Promote only teachers, mentors, trainers and coaches to management positions. Don’t automatically promote your best technical people into management slots. Find other ways of rewarding strong technical people who lack the ability and desire to manage staff. Everyone will thank you, including the technical stars.

Ask for and expect a high level of performance from everyone in your firm. Keep people on their toes and reaching by continually challenging the limits of their abilities. If a person is becoming too comfortable in what is being asked of them, or the tasks they are asked to do are becoming too routine, look for opportunities to shake things up and move them back to the edge of their capabilities. People grow when they are working at their margins. Make a serious investment of time and money to train and develop each person on your staff to enable them to advance further than even they themselves thought they might be able to achieve. While expensive to do, it is far cheaper than the cost of having to constantly be hiring and training replacements for people leaving your firm for greater opportunity elsewhere.

Deal swiftly and consistently with out-of-bounds or inappropriate behavior. Insist on a high degree of personal accountability on everyone’s part. To not do so only demoralizes those who are making the effort to contribute. When people make honest mistakes or errors in judgment occur, use the occasion as a training opportunity.

Use lots of positive reinforcement and personalize it. Let people know you know who they are, what they are doing and how they are performing. Try to decrease your reliance on the customary annual or semi-annual formal performance evaluation by providing more on-the-spot feedback and input to individuals immediately when behaviors, good or bad, occur. If people are hearing performance issues for the first time during formal evaluations, there is a fundamental breakdown in your management system.

Build relationships between the firm and the individuals. No, it does not mean you need to be buddy-buddy, but it does mean that you get close enough to be in a position to show empathy to your people and their circumstances and issues. Sincere interest in others is a mark of excellent leadership and fundamental to creating high degrees of motivation within your staff.

As a principal or manager use the vested authority and power you hold, by virtue of your stature in the firm, sparingly or not at all. Instead guide people to where they need to be by asking a series of questions, making suggestions and pointing out overlooked options, but try not to tell people what to do. You need them to think for themselves and not come to you to make decisions for issues that are within their scope of responsibility. Be a model for how you wish others to act in the firm. Never ask anyone to do anything you would not do yourself.

Create an appealing and modern work place. Work hard and expect a lot, but have some fun and create excitement at your firm as well. Keep things anything but routine. Be spontaneous when it comes to small celebrations and recognition. Randomly give people an extra paid day off here and there. Pass out some theatre tickets. Have drawings on no particular schedule for a certificate for diner for two and a movie.

Finally, accept that fact that some turnover is actually good. Firms where no one ever leaves are not healthy. Nobody is right for every situation, all of the time. In a firm with no turnover, there is a chance that either the firm and or the staff are not being open and honest in their dealings with each other and failing to recognize when it is time for a change to the betterment of both parties.

Wahby and Associates