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It’s Time to Reimagine Employee Retention


Jul. 1, 2022 Harvard Business Review

This is a challenging time for managers. Alongside their day-to-day roles, many are facing a never-ending cycle of reskilling and recruiting on their teams. The need to reskill isn’t new, with the OECD estimating that 1.1 billion jobs are liable to be radically transformed by technology in the next decade. However, managers are now being asked to close the skills gap at the same time as they’re responding to pandemic-prompted resignations.

According to Gartner, the pace of employee turnover is forecast to be 50–75% higher than companies have experienced previously, and the issue is compounded by it taking 18% longer to fill roles than pre-pandemic. Increasingly squeezed managers are spending time they don’t have searching for new recruits in an expensive and competitive market. Unless efforts are refocused on retention, managers will be unable to drive performance and affect change. Leaders need to take action to enable their managers to keep their talent while still being able to deliver on results.

From Constrained Careers to Retention Reimagined

Although managers are undoubtedly navigating dynamic market conditions, one of the primary reasons why people look to leave remains the same: a lack of career progression. That same Gartner report found that 65% of employees are now reconsidering the role of work in their lives; however, only one-third are open to internal opportunities providing part of the solution.

Limited awareness of roles and a perceived lack of support from managers means that for many, it has become easier to leave and growthan squiggle — that is, change roles and develop in different directions — and stay.

Even the most supportive managers face a tough choice in response to this challenge. Investing time and effort in their employees’ career development is often at odds with the metrics they’re measured against. Research from Mercer finds that eight out of 10 companies focus on individual goals whereas just five out of 10 work toward the goals of the broader business unit. Managers who optimize for individual performance are likely to become more territorial about their talent. By keeping the “best” people on their team, they achieve the best outcomes. However, this is often to the detriment of individuals’ career development and the organization’s ability to access its own talent. The unfortunate outcome is that the people managers most want to retain feel constrained and become more likely to leave, risking the performance metrics they were so keen to protect in the first place.

The solution to the career development conflict this creates lies in taking a fresh look at how retention is managed. Managers need help with three things. First, they need help shifting the focus of career conversations from promotion to progression and developing in different directions. Second, they need help creating a culture and structure that supports career experiments. Finally, managers need to be rewarded not for retaining people on their teams but retaining people (and their potential) across the entire organization.

The following three solutions enable managers to support people in growing beyond their teams and increase the chance that top talent will choose to stick around.

Solution 1: Focus career conversations on progression, not promotion.

Career conversations today are often rushed, low quality, or even skipped in favor of day-to-day responsibilities. However, career conversations are one of what Gartner refers to as the “moments that matter” if managers want to retain people. The purpose of a high-quality career conversation should be two-fold: to give employees the permission to be curious about where their career could take them and the practical support to make progress.

Strength spotting

Individuals often struggle to see their strengths, which makes it even more challenging to figure out how those strengths could be applied across different roles and parts of an organization. Career conversations give managers the chance to not only share strengths-based feedback (“I see you at your best when…”) but also to discuss how those strengths might be useful in other teams. They can help employees spot the value in not only what they’re delivering but how they make work happen. For example, there are few teams that wouldn’t benefit from a brilliant problem solver or creative collaborator. Helping employees go beyond being aware of their strengths to understanding how those strengths could be applied in different situations is often the first step in increasing an individual’s confidence to start exploring career possibilities within an organization.

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