To Retain Employees, Get Clued In to Co-Creation

The key to attracting and keeping great employees in the time of big labour shortages is to forget any being-the-boss bias about top-down management.

Advice from Clemens Rettich of Great Performances Group, who has an MBA in Executive Management and 20 years of experience in education, management and small business.

Driving down the highway from Duncan I pass a billboard featuring a Knappett ad for carpenters. A whole billboard looking for employees.

It reflects every conversation I’ve had lately with employers. They all tell me: we can’t find enough qualified employees — or we find someone with a pulse and they don’t even show up for the interview. Or the first day of work. And if we finally get them, we can’t hang on to them.

But this is just on the surface. Underneath, something more profound is happening. The very relationship between our growth and our employees is changing. It isn’t just about employees being hard to get or about good employees being hard to keep. It is about the fundamental relationship between talent and growth.

We live in a world where where productivity, engagement and retention have become like religious incantations. Construction, tech sector, mining, medicine and more — all of these sectors are experiencing growing labour shortages. And these shortages show no signs of improving, unless we have another recession. Economic recessions don’t strike me as a great go-to fix. So what’s going on?


What’s the Fix?

Clued-in businesses are engaging in endless cycles of salary increases, trust-building retreats (can you do “trust falls’” one more time?) and beer Fridays, to keep their talent density (a phrase coined by Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix) high. Clued-out businesses still think it’s 1950 and people will do what you tell them because you pay them.

Neither kind of business is getting what it really needs: growth.

If this system worked, the employee-employer relationship should create a virtuous cycle of value: employment would fuel employees’ personal and professional growth; having employees would fuel business growth. That’s not what’s happening.

What is happening is that global productivity is in a decades-long slump and employees are benefiting less and less from any improvements in productivity that do occur. Shareholders are sucking all that up for themselves. So neither employers or employees are getting what they want.

So what does work?

“[At Netflix] we try to constantly encourage employees to figure out how to improve the culture, not how to preserve it,” says Hastings.

When we pay attention to language, it gives us clues about how to dislodge another broken machine of the Industrial Age, and replace it. The clue is in the Hastings quote: it is not about preservation or retention; it is about improvement and growth. We have to get past just getting and keeping. We must start co-creating growth, with our suppliers, our customers and our employees.

The word retain means “to hang on to.” You can either white-knuckle this process, or you can let go and start co-creating value and growth.

Our customers don’t stick around just because we beg them to. We create loyalty by creating value. Why would our employees be different?


The Co-Creation

By designing an organization that focuses on co-creating value, your investment in the growth of an employee is matched by her investment in your business. It is a virtuous cycle. This involves understanding and communicating exactly what value looks like for both parties and actually working together constantly, to review and refine that understanding.

The kicker? When we get that process right, engagement, productivity and retention become consequences. Like happiness and profit, employee engagement is the consequence of other things done right.

Getting there starts with transforming your organization. How much you have to transform it depends on how value-centric you already are. Organizations that have already embraced Lean Thinking, inclusive decision making and positive feedback management will find this next step easier. Owners who mistake showing up on time for creating value, or who mistake control for trust, are going to find this painful.

We can’t force people to be productive or loyal or engaged any more than we can force them to be happy. Efforts to manipulate productivity, engagement or retention directly are doomed to fail. Often expensively. The effort betrays a mechanistic, binary us-and-them Industrial Age mindset.

Instead, we get the results we want and need by co-creating our futures with our employees, as partners.

7 Questions to Ask

There are seven questions an organization must answer to move from a retention focus to a value co-creation focus.

Do you know where you are going?

You have a mission to accomplish in your organization. Write it and communicate it. It’s the only way your employees will know if you’ll be good travelling partners.

What do your employees dream about?

You can’t co-create value if you can’t understand what that means for each other.

Can you walk the talk?

Employers wax on about teamwork, creativity, risk-taking, discretionary effort, but can’t provide any evidence of feedback, reinforcement or reward for those behaviours.

Do you have time to listen?

Co-creating value takes time: hours of face-to-face time each week. Done right, that time will be the best investment you make as a leader. But you must commit first.

Do you have time to learn?

There is no growth in busy-ness. Leaders need to set aside time for reflection, communication and design. Your employees, especially your top-level decision-makers, need the same time. People can’t create meaningful value off the sides of their desks.

Can you close the loop?

All learning is shaped by feedback. Provide precise performance feedback to your team members, and ask the same of them for yourself. Feedback loops flowing in both directions are a hallmark, and a precondition, for the co-creation of value and for growth.

Are you ready to let go?

Good people leave. Get over it. Transform your talent acquisition and development so exits are gracious, and the onboarding of the next person is low-friction and rapid. The point is not to hang on; the point is to create maximum possible value, to maximize the ROI on the relationship, while it exists.

 This article is from the December 2017/January 2018 issue