The company you keep

Tom & Melissa Laughon

Keys to attracting, growing, & retaining talent

When we started our leadership development firm, generations in the workforce, innovation, talent, culture, and disruption were some of the hot topics. And, twenty years later, we’re still asked to share the “silver bullet” on these same topics.

So, we begin this article with a couple of disclaimers:

The strategies to building a company that attracts, grows, and retains the best talent are quite simple to understand but so very hard to do consistently because the strategies across all of these areas share one thing in common—people.

When we say these are the keys to attracting, growing and retaining talent, we’re not saying the keys; we’re really saying some of the keys, some of the things that matter, some of the things that will provide you with return on investment if you approach them with authenticity, vulnerability, courage, discipline, commitment, and accountability.

Before we get too far down this road, think about why you’ve chosen to read this article. Are you seeing the bottom line impacted adversely by not being able to attract and retain talent? Are you feeling responsible for a culture that is out of alignment? Maybe the right words are on the website and printed on posters in the hall, but you sense people aren’t consistently feeling the love for you, other leaders, teammates, and the company as a whole? Are you just biding time waiting in the carpool line? Or, are you like us and always searching for best practices?

We’re always on the lookout for exemplary leaders. We’ve been fortunate to work with clients across North America; to facilitate from boardrooms in Times Square with their impressive views and accoutrements; to stand roadside and talk with an asphalt “slinger” in 90+ temps about the importance of mutual respect; to observe generational dynamics at play in our courses at FSU and VCU’s da Vinci Center for Innovation; to speak at the same conferences as Jim Collins and Maya Angelou and others we admire; to ride along with a hospice music therapist and learn the true need of caring for the caregivers; to design a leadership camp for foster teens and to be inspired by alumni of our leadership programs who are the kind of leaders that are so rare and yet so needed, and who we are proud to call our friends.

Many years ago, we met Jason, a leader of a car wash that consistently outperformed the other locations across all metrics. His location was experiencing high morale and low turnover with young adults, working minimum wage, year-round, outdoors, at a time when other clients were telling us, “Young people just aren’t willing to do manual labor and work hard these days.” We started asking questions of the team from the greeter to the person polishing the rims. And, every single person mentioned Jason. They said he cared, worked alongside them, saw potential in them and trusted them to drive a Porsche, to handle cash, to resolve a customer complaint, to become a supervisor, to lock up at night and on and on.

We asked Jason, “How do you do it?” Without hesitating, he said, “I know it all starts with me … from the time I step out of my truck, I know that I have to have a positive attitude, and I make sure anyone else in a leadership role understands the importance of leading by example.”

Key #1: One thing we’ve learned for sure, if you or other leaders aren’t being held accountable for your behaviors, nothing else you say or do will matter very much.

Later in the conversation, Jason said he wanted to share an example of how a car wash can change a person’s life.

Key #2: Great leaders imbue a sense of purpose and meaning into work. You have the opportunity to do that for every person in your organization, from an engineer to a flagger to the person offloading the truck. Your work is a daily part of lives, from helping people go places to keeping us safe—America rides on you.

When he started the story, there was a catch in his voice, just enough to give us a glimpse of the depth of his emotions. He shared how in three months, a young man named Tim went from hardly ever speaking or making eye contact to being one of the greatest employees he had the privilege of working with. Jason finished the story by saying, “It was really fun to watch him change from not having any confidence whatsoever to now thinking he can go out and accomplish anything.” Jason doesn’t see himself as a manager of a carwash with a goal of retention. He sees himself as a teacher of lifelong, transferable skills, self-confidence, work ethic, teamwork, and customer service. Because he’s committed to his team, his team wants to continue to work with him.

Key #3: Leadership is a lifelong journey full of meaning and joy, and great leaders are always working to be better leaders and grow more leaders.

So much of what we read about our workforce focuses on how we differ. When actually, we have more in common than not. In 1996 (keep reading, the research has stood the test of time), Gallup’s research pointed to 12 questions that link to business outcomes, safety records, and employee engagement. The questions included items such as “At work my opinion seems to count,” “This last year, I have had opportunities to learn and grow,” and “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.” It turns out these indicators are valid across all ages, stages, and types of businesses.

Key #4: People, at all levels, need to feel valued and respected to do their best work. It takes a foundation of trust to build great teams. And, with trust comes loyalty, commitment, and courage.

To make great hiring decisions, you need options. You need people lined up, willing to jump ship from your competitors, who want to come and be a part of what you are doing so that you can find the kind of people who will be great team players. You want people with potential and who you feel great about investing time and resources in developing. How does a potential employee learn about your culture? They ask. Or, with sites like glassdoor.com, they simply click. What would it be like to be a fly on the wall and hear what your team members (at all levels) say to their families, neighbors, and to their buddies about you and your company?

Key #5: When employees have choices, the basics (pay, benefits, etc.) must be covered, and it is a culture that can be your competitive advantage—employee word of mouth matters. It can make or break your recruiting and retention efforts.

It turns out the best way to keep great talent is to engage them. Ask your best employees, “Why do you stay?” “What will it take to keep you for the long haul?” and “If you were in charge for the day, what would you change and why?” Then, don’t just listen, take notes, and do something and keep doing it until it is embedded in your organization. And don’t let up! Leading a great company culture feels a lot like swimming upstream—if you let up for even a bit, you’ve lost a whole lot of ground.

Key #6: Hope is not a strategy. Think of your culture and organizational health as a discipline in the same way you think of finance, operations, marketing, IT, etc. Identify goals, develop plans, and keep at it just the way you do other areas of your business.

We believe that we aren’t born to be great leaders. We learn and must keep learning. We believe that no one person has to have all the answers. We believe in the power of good ideas that passionate, motivated, fully energized people can generate.

To learn more ways to attract, grow, and retain talent, look to the company you keep—your peers, your leadership, your team members at all levels, your association, your customers, your strategic partners/vendors. Great ideas and resources are all around you.

Catch Your Limit is a leadership development firm based in Richmond, VA, and was founded by Tom and Melissa Laughon in 2000. Catch Your Limit guides clients to measurable, sustainable success in the areas of transformational change, strategic planning, succession planning, leadership cohesion/capacity, collaborative cultures, high-performance teams, and more. www.catchyourlimit.com

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