Retaining Top Talent (Part 2): The Importance of Career Development and Mentoring

In a prior blog I commented on the rising trend of employee turnover, the reasons why employees leave and the enormous costs to the company. In this I will continue with the importance of career development, mentoring and the CEO’s leadership in retaining talent.

Much has been written about employee retention with much of it focused on culture and working environment. But, assuming that you have already taken steps to create a positive culture, interesting work for your employees, career advancement opportunities and a tradition of recognizing and rewarding employee contributions, what further concrete steps can you then take that will have a big impact?

First, research indicates that your younger employees may be accustomed to more personal attention than previous generations, be more focused on career development and advancement but also be more likely to believe that their advancement is better realized by changing employers than staying put. Treating them as you have always treated your employees may not lead to the outcomes you desire.

Secondly, the most important factor in employee engagement and therefore retention has been shown to be the relationship between employee and direct supervisor. This relationship is best nurtured by the supervisor providing that personal attention and taking a real interest in the employee, not just in friendly chat about how they enjoyed their weekend, but in also in serious discussions about in their interests, likes, dislikes, goals and aspirations. Unfortunately, however, most supervisors find it difficult to initiate meaningful discussions about the latter and, as a result, nearly all communications are about either the work at hand or small talk. The first time they find out the employee is not happy or aspires to something else is when the employee gives notice.

To deal with this you need to train your supervisors to have career development and mentoring discussions with their employees on a regular basis. What do the employees want to do, to learn, to develop? What do they aspire to? Do they like the work? Etc. The goal of these discussions is to: (1) create a strong personal bond between employee and supervisor, (2) convince the employee that their career development aspirations can be satisfied by staying, (3) develop the skills of the employee and (4) hopefully create an atmosphere where the supervisor would have early warning of any dissatisfaction or unhappiness with the job.

To implement this you will need to hire a good consultant to do the training and then you need to lead – set an example with your direct reports, emphasize the importance of these discussions and create a system which documents that they have taken place.

One additional thing to accomplish in these discussions is for your supervisors to explain to the employee the costs and risks of job change. Your younger employees may not realize that resumes with too frequent job changes are not well received by prospective employers, nor recognize that the company which seems attractive in the interview may not be as attractive in reality. Every job change incurs a cost and a risk and your employees should understand that. Having these discussions proactively is far more effective than attempting to do them when you are making a counteroffer; by then it is almost always too late.

Once you have instituted these mentoring and career development discussions in general, the next step is to identify your star employees and bring to bear the entire senior management team’s focus on the development and retention of them. These are the people who are going to have the biggest impact on your future and they are incredibly hard to replace.

9 box grid.png

At least twice a year you should spend at least half a day with your senior team focused on this subject. In the first meeting you evaluate all employees on a “9-box” performance and potential matrix (see figure). Those in the three or four boxes in the upper right get a specific development and retention plan developed and owned by the entire senior management team. The second meeting of the team should be to assess progress and make corrections. But do not do this alone the first time; find an HR professional or OD consultant who can help. A good blog on the process can be found here.

These discussions will help align managers’ understanding of performance expectation in general and generate a more nuanced understanding of the strengths, weaknesses and developmental needs of specific individuals than any one manager could develop on their own. They will often lead to an understanding of previously unrecognized problems and/or novel approaches toward mentoring or development.

The process will also bring increased attention to the development and retention needs specifically of your stars and future leaders, insure that appropriate actions are taken to keep them engaged and hopefully prevent some of the mistakes that are often the trigger for them to leave.

It is one of the best investments in the business you will ever make.

Jeff Arnold

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