Employee Retention: How to Keep the Good Ones

Feb. 5, 2015
Corporate advisor says managers need to appreciate, develop, and listen to employees, and stop using ‘lack of time’ as an excuse

CORPORATE advisor and author Doug Cartland believes that a discussion on employee retention needs to focus on a truth that is established straight up: Good employees stay where they are appreciated, are developed, are listened to, are challenged, are given opportunities for advancement, and are not taken for granted and burned out.

“If they are bored, fatigued, stressed, treated unfairly, go unrewarded, shown a deaf ear, are not developed, and have no opportunity to fulfill their professional objectives, they will blow away with the next breeze that has a decent offer in it,” Cartland said.

Cartland, president of DCI, was the presenter in a National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA) webinar, “Employee Retention: How to Keep the Good Ones,” which was sponsored by Generation Next, the NTEA’s young professional association.

Cartland, an advisor and coach to CEOs for 16 years and an author of three books, said that when he talks about “good employees,” he’s not necessarily talking about “superstars.”

“They don’t need to be,” he said. “We’re going to have varying levels of productivity. There are different skills and abilities. You’ll have a baseball team that wins the World Series, and you have your .300 and .350 hitters, and then you have your .225 and .250 hitters who every now and then get a big hit and have tremendous value to a team. That’s true in the workplace too.”

He said it’s critical to see the world from their point of view. That requires an understanding of how the human mind works—and he said human beings are motivated first by self-interest.

What could a manager do to inspire them to stay for the long haul?

•  Stay committed to them. “Develop them, challenge them, don’t let them get bored. Give them opportunities.”

•  Give them genuine input. “Consider their point of view when making decisions. Listen to their ideas.”

•  Don’t burn them out. “Don’t overuse them. Hold those around them accountable.”

•  Appreciate them. “Verbally reward them and pay them.”

He said managers perceive that their biggest obstacle to following this plan is time.

“The overriding obstacle that leaders state as the main reason they don’t invest consistently in their best employees is a lack of time,” he said. “‘I would train and develop them if I had time. I would listen to them if I had time. I would hold others around them accountable if I had time. I would pat them on the back if I had time. I would help them pursue their professional goals if I had time. I wouldn’t dump so much on them if I had time.’

“And because we don’t make the time, we lose our best. And then where are we? Let’s be clear: We won’t make time for our good employees unless we lead with the long view in mind. Too many leaders are focused on expediently getting through each day; putting out today’s fires, reacting to today’s problems and obstacles minute by minute. Most don’t recognize the correlation between their behaviors today and their lives tomorrow.

“I’ve often said that most leaders in business feel like they are on a merry-go-round spinning a million miles per hour. I would never ask someone to jump off a merry-go-round spinning a million miles per hour, because that’s how people get hurt. But I do ask leaders to invest their time in such a way that will start slowing the merry-go-round down making it safe to step off.”

He said that in actuality, you’ll have to invest a relatively small pittance of time today, but the payoff down the road in time and profits is immense.

“Not only is there a better chance that they will stay, but it allows you to maximize their skills and talents and gives them the capability of shouldering a more substantive load. This is the long view. If you don’t lead for the long-term, you’ll be blind to these benefits, you’ll not invest the time and you’ll lose your good employees.

“However, if you take that first step, slowing your pace for a moment to connect the dots, to see how your investment of time in your good employees today will pay monumental dividends later; if you will recognize how much this investment benefits you and your team down the road, then you’ll be ultra-motivated to pay it.”

Motivation is the start, but prioritizing it is the next step. He said it’s the gift of knowing the most important thing to do right now.

“You have a zillion things to do, leader, but you know you can only do one thing at a time,” he said. “And if you know, out of those zillion things, that you are focused on the most important item, your #1 priority, then stress melts away.”

“People are quite literally your most important asset and your most valuable investment. That’s especially true of your good people. If they fail, I fail.”

So if your professional life dangles by the thread of your people’s performance, if your very professional existence hedges on your people’s success or failure, if other people’s impression of your performance is measured by your team’s performance, then it behooves you to invest all you can in them, he said.

The problem, Cartland said, is that when managers do spend time with their people, it’s too often with underperformers and problem employees.

“Around in circles and circles and circles we go with the same people over the same issues,” he said. “They suck the life blood from us; our emotional energy is drained. 

“Certainly we should deal with our problem employees. But the key is to do it without being consumed by them. We must get on to the more important work with the higher payoff: developing and inspiring our good employees. It’s the good ones who give us the biggest bang for our buck.”

So managers need a practical strategy to do so. And that is “divide and conquer.”

“It seems at first blush that it would take a daunting amount of time to train, develop, inspire, and communicate effectively with our good employees,” he said. “Or does it? I spoke to a manager recently who needed to train one of his excellent up-and-comers in a particular skill. I asked him to approximate how much total time he thought it would take him to train this employee to perform that skill effectively. He thought about it and guessed that it would take about 15 hours. Well, now, that is daunting. Who can carve 15 hours out of their schedule now to train anyone? I know I couldn’t.

“He knew he couldn’t either, so he just didn’t train him at all. Too often leaders get it stuck in their heads that if they can’t do it all now, then they might as well not do it at all. This is actually quite common. ‘But,’ I asked him, ‘what if instead of training the employee for 15 hours over two days, you instead trained him for two hours per week over the next two months?’ He nodded as he pondered. ‘Maybe two one hour sessions per week,’ I suggested.”

“Besides, steady-as-she-goes training can be the most effective training anyway,” he said. “Rather than stuffing it all down the employee’s throat at once, we parse it out over time. Let them learn slowly, learn and practice, until the lessons become new skills and habits. My point is, it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to develop our best, if we simply attack their development in small steps: divide and conquer.”

He gave one other piece of advice: Put these development times on the calendar and make them sacrosanct—“you don’t cancel them unless the place is burning down”—otherwise they’ll get lost among other “things” and will never happen.

“One of the great mistakes leaders make is that they try to train on the fly,” he said. “You know, spontaneous trainings that they fit into their schedules wherever they can. The problem with that thinking is that today’s fires always seem more urgent than tomorrow’s investments. And so we’ll always run to the fires—or what we perceive to be fires. And the fires never go away.

“But if we think for the long term, prioritize well, and develop in small steps, we will create for ourselves a dynamic workforce driven by our motivated and best employees. The fires will begin to simmer down, and the merry-go-round will begin to slow. And greater profits will not be far behind.”  ♦