5 Practical steps to retain Talent

During 2009 I was asked by a client to come to a meeting where they were going to discuss how to build a better Employee Value Proposition (EVP), to stem the tide of an exiting younger workforce. Retention was their goal, and a great goal it is in today’s changing working environment. Most organisations that I have worked with are all dealing with higher churn rates in their organisation. Their employees are staying for less and less time. Across the board.

The worrying part of the meeting was the lack of thought, in my opinion, that had gone into building a systemic view of their new EVP. It was almost as if the EVP had taken center stage, instead of seeing it as simply step 1 in a long process. Designing an EVP is a very different animal to implementing one. Changing your EVP sends ripples (both good and bad) throughout the entire organisation. The change required in some areas is significant. Changing your EVP shouldn’t be taken lightly in my opinion. It’s one of those things you do only when you have to, and when you have to, you make sure it’s robust enough to last you a very long time.

In an attempt to add value to this discussion I’d like to suggest 5 practical steps an organisation should think through in the process of building an organisation that is better able to retain today’s workforce.


1.) How will you know you’ve succeeded?

Building a more relevant EVP is one thing. But relevant for what? What are you hoping the organisation will look like once you’ve completed the project? It’s a question of ‘measures’ really. Time, money and energy will have to go into designing and implementing any new EVP (it’s a mammoth task) and being able to measure the return on that investment is critical for all stakeholders. An ability to set milestones for the journey is a large enabler in order to adjust and shift as you go along.

I don’t think the measures need to be particularly complex. They can be as simple as changing the current churn rate of X, to a churn rate of X+Y. There is a very real monetary return on extending the average months/years your employees in a particular division stay for. Work out that number and you’ll have a very clear business case around the investment required to make any changes.

One of our clients had a very simple idea. It was cost effective and didn’t require a large administration load to execute. They knew exactly how many CV’s landed in their HR department each month for a particular job spec. Their thought-process was that if they delivered on their goal of creating a superior work environment, word would get out, social networks would light up, and the number of CV’s received each month would grow. More CV’s means a bigger pool to choose from, which equals a better quality of potential employee to choose from.

Keep it simple and be specific, but before you begin, decide exactly what you’re trying to do?

2.) Start with Managers, but keep future employees in mind

One of the biggest failings in any change process is the famed ‘last mile‘ (mostly used in the telecommunications world but very applicable as a concept in most worlds). You’re never going to implement a successful EVP implementation if you don’t have your managers on board. Whatever you think of them and their ability to adjust and embrace this new world of work, they to a large extent, control and are the largest influencers of the any working environment. While all the ‘sexy’ stuff is involved in thinking about your new younger employees and what they need, the grunt work and the difficult work, is ensuring that your managers are on board, up to speed, and 100% behind the initiative.

You’ve got to start with them. You’ve got to build a strategy that originates in their world. Explore with them their pain in working with a new worker in this new world of work. Explore the different world views that are present in today’s work environment. Explore how their expectations when they started work were appropriate in that context, but may not be in this new context. From the beginning build a strategy/EVP that comes from them, and not one that comes from you and is given to them.

3.) Begin at the beginning with Induction / On-Boarding

There is evidence that the first few months that someone experiences at a new company determines whether they stay or go. When you first join a company you’ve made a decision to join. It’s not yet been converted into a decision to stay. I have spoken to many younger people who speak of their first few weeks (sometimes days) as being significant in their process of converting a decision to join to a decision to stay (and for how long?).

With more and more documentation being created around this topic you’d imagine that more companies would pay more attention to their induction/on-boarding programme? And yet I still come across all sizes of organisation who run a half-day or one-day induction programme in the first week or month of arriving. All new recruits are filed into a room, and are then exposed to all sorts of information from all kinds of people, with the expectation of those running the programme that induction/on-boarding has now been done. Information most often needs a context in which it can embed itself. For many new recruits having the CEO, FD or their line manager literally dump a large volume of information, early on in their new career, runs a high risk of leaving their minds as quickly as it arrived.

We assisted one of our clients to take a very different approach. We borrowed the focus that the American public puts on new Presidents in their ‘first 100 days‘, and designed a 100 day on-boarding process that began 3 weeks before the new recruit started. It started that early because that’s when the letter informing them of their successful application was sent out. From that moment the next 100 days was carefully thought through. It wasn’t that new recruits where taken out of work for 100 days (not many organisations can afford that), it was that their first 100 days were carefully thought through. We asked a set of questions that included:

  • What do they need on their first day to survive and function?
  • Who do they need to meet during their first day, during their first week, during their first month, during their first 100 days?
  • What stories do they need to hear?
  • What experiences do they need to have?

These questions, and others, changed much about their on-boarding. For example, instead of hearing from the CEO and FD on their first day, these encounters were moved to the last 25 days, where information dumps would be more meaningful and more appropriate and meaningful questions could be asked. Each new recruit was given a ‘passport’ that outlined their first 100 days. This allowed them to be better informed of their process and enabled them to take initiative around some of the events, training and meetings.

4.) Create meaningful forums for feedback (from everyone)

There are no silver bullets, 7 fundamental laws or 18 irrefutable truths when it comes to working out what today’s EVP needs to look like and include? It’s a dynamic process that needs to shift shape until you find what works for your organisation. Flexibility is key and change is certain. Feedback from everyone involved in the process is critical. Each person impacted by a changing EVP must have a feedback channel for valuable insight to be contributed. A systemic view must be taken, in order to appreciate that as one part is changed another part (only one if you’re lucky) will change. Unintended consequences abound when you’re tinkering with something as relational and complex as ‘how we do business together around here’.

I think it’s useful to get a handle on some change models at this stage. It doesn’t matter which one you read, most warn that we often underestimate how long it takes to bed something down in a change process. When energy and investment are high everything seems to look like it’s going to work. But when energy subsides and focus of attention moves to the next important project, the glitches and problems you didn’t foresee begin to rear their head. Building in formal feedback processes, and taking them seriously, can help you stay on top of things.

5.) Ask them when they’re leaving?

This is possibly a little outrageous and extreme, but I think it’s the most important question you can ask of a new recruit on day 1. Ask any HR manager today, and they’ll tell you it’s a question they wish they could put on the table, simply because of the new reality of high churn because of shorter and shorter ‘staying cycles’. Gone is the 20 year loyal-employee – Welcome in the 2.3 year temp-employee.

So why ask the question? In my opinion, if you can create an environment in which your new recruit feels safe to answer, and they do, then you have the perfect opportunity to communicate how I believe today’s EVP needs to be communicated. It goes something like this….

You: “So how long are you planing to stay with us?”

New Recruit (NR): “Based on what I know about myself and what I’m hoping to achieve, I anticipate I’ll be here for around 3 years.”

You: Deep Breath and Pause

You Again: “OK then! I’m going to give you the best 3 years of your life. And in return I’m expecting you to give me the best 3 years of your life.”

And if you can deliver on that, then I think who’ll be in a far better position to go to them in 2.5 years and ask them what they’re doing for the next 3 years, and expect them to seriously consider giving you another chunk of their career.

In my opinion that’s the essence of the new EVP. It’s experiential. As managers we’ll have to manage an experience, deliver on that experience, and hold our employees accountable to delivering 100% from their end. All based on the this ‘new deal’ – I’ll give you the best 3 years of your life, and I expect you to give me your best 3 in return.

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