As I sat in the passenger seat of Debbie’s car, she gave me a tour of the beloved Ft. Worth children’s hospital she had worked at for the past 43 years.  She spoke with love and respect about what she had helped build over that time.  She reminisced about the two small buildings they had started in all those years ago and pointed to the numerous blue-topped roofs and sprawling grounds they decorated with adorable, welcoming-to-children topiary landscaping.  We saw the Ronald McDonald House and the staff childcare center, as well as the numerous areas for reflection and relaxation for those suffering a physical setback.  She talked about how the pandemic trauma of the last two years had impacted the culture they had built and even threatened to crumble it.

Regardless, as we pulled into the parking garage, she greeted the parking attendant warmly and asked how he was feeling, saying to me, that he had just recovered from surgery.  As we strolled the brightly colored hallways, Debbie chatted and hugged her way across the campus.  She would quickly point out those individuals who had been with the hospital for decades and were so dedicated to the cause of helping children heal that they wouldn’t think of leaving until retirement.  During this tour, I fell in love with this new hospital client of ours and told Debbie how inspired I was to be a part of their purpose on this planet.

The whole experience was remarkable and seeing so many long-term employees reminded me of another group I had worked with the week before who had recently been acquired by one of my clients.  During our joint company strategic planning session, we were discussing the “talent war,” and we all listened intently as two of the owners of the acquired company talked about the team that became family over the years.  They had started at the age of 16 working in the lumber business and were set to retire from that same company in the next 5 or so years.  They talked about others in the business who grew up together, got through school, enjoyed fishing trips as a team, went to one another’s weddings, and celebrated when they had children. We are talking retention of 31…28…19 years, which are unbelievable numbers in today’s world.

So how is this possible and do we have any chance of recreating this in today’s job market?  Some will say “No way, today’s workforce isn’t nearly as loyal, and it is not realistic.”  But is that true?  Or can we at least aim to be a significant part of an employee’s work history?  I believe we can.

Develop a Great Retention Initiative
Many employers are no doubt wishing that the Great Resignation, where employees have been quitting their jobs in record numbers since the Spring of 2021, would suddenly become a very different trend: the Great Retention. But research suggests that many workers remain confident about their prospects in the current hiring market, in fact, 41% of respondents are currently looking or plan to look for a new role in the next six months.  This means employers must still be vigilant about the risk of top performers walking out the door.

This, in my opinion, is the number one issue, outside of finding talent, for companies today.  Every single coaching or consulting conversation I have includes the current challenges with talent.  And it’s not getting better anytime soon.  We have to look at those companies who are doing it well, come up with creative strategies, and listen to what our most-valued employees are telling us. Based on research and my own anecdotal evidence there are 8 areas that I believe you need to focus on as a leader to retain your talent.  I hope these resonate with you and inspire you to work on at least one of these:

1. Create and Support an Inclusive “Family” Culture
Having a “sticky” culture where people take care of one another and truly care is crucial.  Through the years that is one common thread in companies I have seen be successful in keeping their employees long-term…they are one another’s work family and it would be unthinkable to leave that family.  Now with that kind of vulnerability, you must make sure there are good boundaries in place so there is no “family dysfunction”, but essentially these teams support one another through the good times and the bad.

2. Find Each Team Member’s Motivation ‘Lever’
“Money” is not the reason people stay in a job.  It can be demotivating if they are paid unfairly but thinking about throwing money at an employee who is thinking of leaving is the wrong strategy. Every person has his or her levers of engagement and motivation: Fun. Authority. Development. Responsibility. Autonomy. Respect. Recognition. Challenge. Variety. Figure out what each individual needs, then figure out how to best work towards it. Meeting those individuals where they are is one of the best things you can do as a leader.

3. Emphasize Shared Non-Negotiable Core Values
From the beginning, recruit people whose values align with yours and the company. This builds a positive atmosphere and culture, which resonates with people and keeps them on board. Consult with your people, find out what they care about, and build collaborative solutions that inspire their loyalty and commitment. People like to feel included, and valued and that their contribution makes a difference.  The great thing about this is that if there is a value mismatch the team will pick it up instantly and advocate to keep the shared values on track.

4. Rally Everyone Behind an Emotionally Driven Purpose
Most employees want to feel part of something bigger and to be proud of it. In addition to rewards and positive feedback, leaders can inspire others by consistently and regularly communicating a clear purpose that people connect with emotionally. It is easy to get mired in the day-to-day details; step back and connect those details to a broader vision. This means embedding it in your everyday work not just from a “marketing” perspective (posted on your website), but in daily conversations as evidence of working towards that incredibly important purpose beyond making money.

5. Change Old-School Thinking Against Flexibility and Track Results Instead
In 2022, people value flexibility more than ever. If someone is in a role that can be effectively carried out through flexible work, then offer this. Not only is this hugely rewarding for employees, but it also gives them a sense of comfort, knowing that you trust them to carry out their role effectively and manage their own time.  And don’t automatically assume the younger generation will take advantage of it.  Depending on what stage of life and career people are in will determine how much or how little structure or time in the office they will need or want.  Track results, not “butts in chairs”.

6. Get Everyone Directly Involved in The Company
Money is the result of successful work and not a sustainable source of motivation. Other important forms of compensation include having fun, working on something great, recognizing and appreciating colleagues, and the feeling of having achieved something challenging. Coming from this mindset, rather than just exchanging their time for money, the culture should encourage an “owners’ mindset” in the employees.  The employees can then be a part of building something inspiring that they can be incredibly proud of.

7. Recognize Your Team Member’s Humanity
The most meaningful way to recognize employees amidst all the difficulties we are facing in the current challenging business and social environment is to first and foremost recognize their humanity. Know the individuals on your team and recognize each employee’s unique challenges as the year unfolds.  Command and control are out.  Prioritize time, space, and opportunity for them to thrive and reach their goals by guiding their growth and investing in them. Compassion is one of the most overlooked leadership traits to leverage, especially after a couple of tough years.

8. Share What Each Employees Role in Your Vision for The Future Is
Inspire people to want to work with you and each other by sharing your vision and their role in it. You might be working your way through current challenges, but your eyes are on the future. Tell them about three indicators informing your vision for the future and why those give you confidence. Assure your people that they are building the foundation for a future in which all of them play a part. Be honest, specific, visionary, and hopeful.  People love making a difference and being a part of something big.

The list above is near and dear to my own heart.  The two that were highlighted by the clients I was working with the last two weeks were knowing one another on a personal level and ensuring people understood how relevant their contribution was to the success of the organization.  This aligns nicely with Patrick Lencioni’s work on employee engagement.  I would hope that you might look at the above list and rank yourself from 1 to 5 on each.  Then ask yourself which one you might need to work on from now till the end of the year.  If you are diligent in working on it, it will pay off…I promise!  If you need more resources, please let us know, and, as always, best wishes in your leadership journey!

  • “I just want to go to one meeting and not have to talk about Covid…it’s overwhelming.” – Physician
  • “I’ve been never worked so hard and have so little to show for it.” – Consultant
  • “I am spending the majority of my day trying to track who is or is not at work and who is or is not sick.” – HR Professional
  • “Before COVID I would get home around 6 and be able to enjoy my family.  Now I am not traveling and working alone in my home office until 9:00 at night…it’s exhausting.”  – Sales Professional
  • “I’m quitting – I have had to tell over 100 families their loved ones passed away.” – Nurse

These are all statements made to me just in the last week.  We are all feeling it!  The last nine months have definitely been challenging for each and every one of us. Here at Steople what we have witnessed with our clients has been work from home orders, downsizing, compassion fatigue (especially in healthcare), agonizing decisions, and working much longer hours.  But on the other side of this difficult time in history, there are many lessons!  Across the board, I feel we have all learned to adapt in the moment, become more creative in our problem solving, and gotten very comfortable with ambiguity.  But how can we put all of this to work for us in 2021?

Post-COVID Review
Many of you probably already utilize post-project reviews on your own team.  Why not implement something similar at this time of year…a post-pandemic review for 2020 (realizing it is far from over)?  Being able to look back and discuss as a team what could have gone better might be time well-spent.  Here are some helpful tips to facilitate the conversation:

  • Ask for openness – Emphasize the importance of being open and honest in your assessment, and make sure that people aren’t in any way punished for being open.
  • Be objective – Describe what has happened in objective terms, and then focus on improvements.
  • Document success – Document practices and procedures that led to successes, and make recommendations for applying them to future issues.
  • Look with hindsight – Pay attention to the “unknowns” (now known!) that may have increased implementation risks. Develop a way of looking out for these for future difficult events.
  • Be future-focused – Remember, the purpose is to focus on the future, not to assign blame for what happened in the past. This is not the time to focus on any one person or team.
  • Look at both positives and negatives – Identify positive as well as negative lessons.

Today I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the top “silver lining” leadership lessons that I have learned that will stay with me for years to come. As I document these I am going to get a little help from some of our most respected leadership thought leaders.

Give Grace to Others
A client is late to a Zoom meeting, the restaurant didn’t get your lunch order right, a direct report missed an important detail in a presentation, and your 16-year-old forgot to set his morning alarm.  Hmmm…in these situations it is tough to hold the assumption of positive intent.  Brené Brown writes that asking leaders to assume others are doing the best they can move them from “pushing and grinding on the same issues” to the more difficult task of:

  • teaching their team,
  • reassessing their skill gaps,
  • reassigning them,
  • or letting them go.

“It’s a commitment to stop respecting and evaluating people based solely on what we think they should accomplish, and start respecting them for who they are, and holding them accountable for what they’re actually doing,” she says.

Find Joy in Missing Out
The pandemic has forced us to curb so many of our regular activities.  I’ve always said Mother Nature sometimes can stop us dead in our tracks and clear our calendars. Nothing could be truer in the past several months.  We must establish a new mindset.  One key strategy Adam Grant advocates are practicing gratitude. “I know many people are feeling FOMO, the fear of missing out, right now on all the things that could be happening in their lives,” Grant says. “But there’s also such a thing as JOMO: the joy of missing out.”  His gratitude list, for example, includes wearing sweatpants to work, skipping his commute, and having fewer awkward interactions with strangers.  Mine include having quiet time to work on much-needed projects, focusing on healthy eating habits, and more time with my 16-year-old son.

Realize The Importance of Human Contact
One of the most difficult parts of 2020 for those of us who are “high touch” people have been no handshakes, hugs, or expressions due to being behind a mask.  Paul Zak, the author of The Moral Molecule, argues, “We touch to initiate and sustain cooperation.” He conducted a “neuroeconomics” study from which he argues that hugs or handshakes are likely to cause the release of the neurochemical oxytocin, which increases the chances that a person will treat you “like family,” even if you just met.  He states there are even economic benefits to physical touch, probably because “touch signals safety and trust; it soothes.” Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response.” NBA teams whose players touch each other more, for example, win more games.

Understand Ambiguity is Here to Stay
Looking at an organizational chart, you will see boxes and lines. Boxes are what the individual job is and the lines are the reporting relations. Although most of a leader’s work might fall within their job description, the meaningful activities that will advance an organization never truly fall into any specific “box,” but surf in between them in the white space.  My observations of the past few months are very clear. The leaders who had the most comfort with the ambiguity of the white space and were able to bring a team of teams to work together as one have been able to achieve a tremendous and impactful amount of work in ways that heavily exceeded normal productivity – especially in the midst of chaos.

To emphasize this point, in his new book, Simon Sinek advocates that as leaders get beyond the normal day-to-day elasticity that running a business demands, playing the “infinite game” requires existential flexibility. What exactly is existential flexibility?  Simon Sinek describes it as, “The capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance a Just Cause.” In other words, it’s a big-time offensive maneuver and not to be confused with the defensive adjustments companies make when facing changing client needs or market conditions.

Double Down on Discipline
When the pandemic kicked in mid-March I began to research what companies not only survived, but thrived during the economic downturn of 2007/2008. In a previous blog, I mentioned that one of the strategies they utilized was being disciplined and consistent.  In “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins recounts several stories of outrageous behavior by former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, including resolving a trade slogan dispute with another company by arm wrestling the firm’s CEO in an arena in front of hundreds of employees. He did this not for the sake of weirdness, but because by “behaving with outlandish consistency,” he was animating a culture designed to be high-spirited and fun-loving. His point was that ultra-successful CEOs exhibited a fanatical level of self-discipline, doing “whatever it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult.”

So before you start to disperse for your holiday celebrations, sit down with your team and pose these three questions to them documenting as you go:

Reflecting back on how our team performed in 2020…

  • What do we need to start doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?
  • What do we need to stop doing?

My guess is you will find some “golden nugget” responses that you will be able to leverage as we roll into 2021.  Have a great rest of the week and finish this crazy, unpredictable year strong!