How to Keep Your Best Employees: Write the Book
When it comes to retaining great employees, every executive has their favorite platitude: it’s all about culture; make sure people feel challenged; give them a clear path to advancement.
Easy to say, but much harder to do. What is a great culture? Is it really enough to keep someone from taking a new job or new opportunity? How do you keep people challenged every day when some of the work is just … well … work? How do you give them advancement opportunities when you only need so many managers?
I agree that culture, challenge, and advancement are the key tenets, but I think there’s a single management philosophy that most completely ties them all together when it comes to employee retention. Quite simply, it’s a philosophy of “no matter what functional challenge we’re taking on, we’re going to get creative, innovate, and write the book on how to do it better than it’s ever been done before.”
Most companies build their brand and identify as the company that “provides the best (insert product here).” They try to make their employees’ pride sink and swim on what the company physically makes or provides to clients. The problem with that is, while it’s very motivating for certain departments (perhaps a subset of the engineers who work on a key new feature), it’s not tangible for other functional areas on a daily basis.
If, instead, you can differentiate your company’s culture through the process by which it builds its products, the process by which it sells its products, and the process by which it operates fundamentally, then you allow your team members to define the company, which promotes a real sense of agency in their work. The mandate that “no matter what we’re focused on, we’re going to figure out how to do it better than everyone else, and teach everyone else how to do it. We’re going to write the book on how it’s done,” has many positive effects on employee retention:
(1) From a culture perspective, it gives everyone in the organization a sense of pride. It doesn’t matter which part of the machine you are responsible for. A mandate of “innovate, create, and be the new model for how it’s done,” will make you feel great about your job. We all want to be our very best and apply our best creative efforts to the task at hand. This applies even in light of constrained resources, which is just another attribute of the problem you ask your team to innovate to solve.
(2) It gives senior managers a challenge. I’ve never met a great executive who wanted to simply “execute the playbook they know.” One of the best joys of being such an accomplished professional is getting to draw from prior experience and do something even better. Who hasn’t sat back and thought “next time, when I do this…?” Give your management team members that mandate. Make it clear that, while their prior experience should be a guiding light, you didn’t hire them for what they already know. They got their jobs because their career achievements demonstrated the ability to innovate and move forward.
(3) It creates opportunity for advancement for more employees but, perhaps, not in the traditional way people tend to think about it. Advancement should be viewed in terms of opportunities to learn versus title and hierarchy, because it’s often a combination of breadth and depth of skill that makes a person valuable to an organization. And, in a world where the exact business model and underlying processes are unknown (because the book is still unwritten), the opportunity for learning advancement is often only limited by the individual themselves.
Beyond just retention, a philosophy of “write the book in every department” creates the real differentiation your business needs. Inevitably your competition will catch up to any one attribute of your execution. They’ll build the feature you had. They’ll figure out how to match your pricing. They’ll even catch on to your unique branding strategy. But, if you can picture a shelf with books written by your managers about how to sell, how to market, how to build products, how to run HR, and how to accomplish every other goal within your company, you’ll always be one step ahead.