LA 038: Why Talent Leaves

and Other Leadership Lessons from BREXIT



So the UK is getting divorced from Europe.

Rather surprising with the way different age groups voted. Or rather, not surprising. Baby boomers and older and the older Gen X voting to leave, with the youngsters voting to remain.

Not only has the vote divided the country in two about Europe, it’s divided along generational lines too.
Not another idiotic pundit spouting nonsense about maybe this or maybe that, but lets’ bring this back to leadership and what it means for you in business?

Back in 1975, even I was too young to vote. But, to me, it was pretty clear that the UK never really committed to the relationship with Europe because it kept sovereignty over its banking and currency. When one party is picking and choosing which parts of the full agreement it wants to keep, then there’s going to be trouble ahead.

The idea of a united Europe is bold. The intentions behind it are laudable and expectations were high that not only would this mean peace throughout Europe, it would be greater prosperity for all.

Expectations rise in the negotiation between talent and their prospective employer too

The same is true in business. When we hire people, we establish their expectations for the future and both the candidate and employer are “selling” themselves to the other party.

Candidates promise sincerely that they have those incredible skills as shown on their CV. Employers might wonder how someone so young had such incredible experience and might question why someone with so much responsibility would want to leave their current position.

Employers too, promise great things. The benefits and hours and career progression, training, mentoring and oh such a bright future.

There’s a little dance as the two playfully seriously negotiate the agreement and eventually the promise to be diligent in making the relationship work, happily ever after.

And then reality comes back in to play.

One day, the candidate, now staff, seems to have forgotten a particular skillset. Their vast experience of similar problems appears to have been forgotten. Their tremendous leadership capability and excellent people skills have apparently abandoned them and performance takes a swan dive.

Their manager did mentor them for a few minutes, and there was a discussion about promotion but the truth was that they wasn’t a suitable position and recent cutbacks meant that it would be a while before any new training would be held.

What causes talent to leave?

Talent expects to be paid a fair amount and equitable with what they can get outside.it's not the money, it's the money

Well it’s not the money. But it is the money! Wait a moment, so is it the money. So many respondents in surveys by the likes of HBR, Forbes and so on would make you believe that talent does not put money in their top five reasons for leaving. And that’s true when I’ve done survey’s too. But then you ask some headhunters and you find that the single most powerful thing they do to sway talent away from one company to another is the money involved. Money shows respect like nothing else. But it certainly isn’t the only thing, unless you are seriously under-paying your talent.

More importantly for many, there needs to be evidence of equity and fairness in compensation and opportunities. Nothing riles us more than seeing someone else getting preferential treatment. Or someone getting something that they’ve done nothing deserving.

Talent expects you to coach and mentor them as you promised

When interviewed on exit, talent mention coaching, mentoring and training as their top reason for wanting to move on to greener pastures. Everyone is promised a personalised and structured career development plan when they join a company with a mentoring and or coaching culture to support it and plenty of training opportunities. The reality is a lot different. So they get sold the same promise down the road and quit, only of course, to find out in a while that they too don’t follow through on that promised plan and support.

Talent wants to be working with the latest and the best

Opportunities to work with more advanced technologies is a major reason for top talent to leave according to a 2016 Deloitte Business Confidence report.

Talent expects to have a fair and supportive boss

And the most often cited reason for talent leaving is their immediate boss. From lack of recognition, no respect, bullying, incompetence and the many colours between it seems that the adage is true, people join a company but the leave a boss.

Why do they join the company but leave their boss?

Organisations go to great lengths to make sure that they look after and support their staff. The promises of coaching and mentoring and opportunities are well meant. It’s just that on the ground floor, during the average working day, the immediate boss is stretched to the limit. They have too much on their plate and insufficient time to do all of that soft, nice to have extra stuff that leaders are meant to do. After all they have a job to do.

“I may as well do it myself”

If the boss hands over that opportunity to stretch the staff, well they may as well just do it themselves because by the time they’ve coached them, and fixed the mess they make, they might as well just do it themselves.

Oh the times I have heard this as a reason to hold onto work and keep control rather than take a risk and let go. Far too many leaders secretly don’t like to let go of certain tasks – and very frequently, don’t want to let go of doing things they don’t actually enjoy doing. But control is power, and holding things tight keeps that power safe.

Talent expects to be given suitable opportunities and work for a supportive boss who recognizes and appreciates them. They leave when their expectations aren’t met.

Companies can try rewarding managers and leaders for NOT working! That would be a novel approach. The more you don’t do things (but coach others to do so), the more you are rewarded.

Where does the talent go?

Talent wants to be with their friends

When I was working predominantly for telecomms businesses during the early hey days of mobile, the industry was incredibly nepotistic. People would quit one telco and move to their arch rival, then poach the talented team members over. A few years later, there would be another move elsewhere. Then, of course, that arch rival would get taken over by the first company and the talent wound up back “home”.
Talent likes more and they know that they deserve it

Of course, there would be more money on the table and usually a promotion – or at least the job title was a promotion. And telecomms isn’t alone in this. Most people stay largely within an industry, from one hotel chain to another, from one big software house to another, from one bank to another.
Your competitors are, like you, constantly searching for talent to give them an edge. And if they can poach someone from you, then that’s a double whammy, they gain while you lose.

Occasionally, someone moves industry. That’s when you know you’ve really lost someone with more unusual talent.

When do talent leave?

Talent gives you time to fulfil your promises

Anyone who’s been in corporate life for any length of time knows their cycles of boom and bust. When times are good, there is a more relaxed atmosphere and leaders find time to recognize and appreciate their team members. Perhaps there is a spurt of training or a new initiative to get that mentoring culture underway. There’s enthusiasm for a while and talent likes the attention and support and opportunities.

When the times are tough, the talent leave… if they can

Then there’s a glitch, a stutter in the market and some of the hatches are closed. Managers push for more sales, faster turnaround, better quality and no there’s no more money for this and the time is now. Every year there’s a call for faster, better, cheaper and management push the talent harder. While engagement levels plummet, management mistakenly assume that all is still OK.

The allure of money is out there

After the first couple of years it seems that pay increments are not keeping up with the market and the allure of more money begins to bite. The talent is now beginning to think they would be better off elsewhere. Perhaps something more exciting, interesting and definitely more money. (Even though they don’t leave for the money, workers who stay at one company for more than two years are paid up to 50% less!)

The 3 to 4 year career cycle

By the third or fourth year, a competitor is snooping around because their market is fine, or they’re about to embark on an expansion and they come courting your talent, just as they are beginning to feel a little neglected, or worse abused.

How to retain the real talent?

Companies spend a fortune on recruiting talent and when there is competition to recruit the promises to provide the best working environment, the most supportive place to grow and flourish are sold with conviction. Well-meaning HR managers share details of planned career paths and support, some even with the intention of delivering. But then budgets get cut, or priorities change and the daily task list for HR gets bogged down with administrative issues.

Why is there little or no Shared Situational Awareness?

Managers and leaders get pressure to deliver on results and find no time for the promised mentoring, preferring to delegate that time-consuming effort to others.

Take time to listen really listen to your talent and recognise them for effort and not just results. For many, they’ve been winning gold stars for trying and when you ignore them because they “should have grown up out of that by now” and they “should know what to do to get results” means that they’ll be easily led astray by anyone who does listen to them and pat them on the back.

And above all, we need to identify the real talent. That’s the talent that is giving you a genuine competitive edge. Too often, company’s make the mistake of equating exam results with talent and far more frequently, those with connections and class ties.

“But if I invest training or coaching them, they just get poached for a little more money! “

Yes, it’s true, as you mentor and train them, they’ll become more attractive to outsiders. You could of course chose not to develop them at all and keep them. Nothing quite like keeping a fabulous standard of mediocrity in your team.

“I would love to mentor them but I simply don’t have enough time”

Are you sure about that? Can you afford just five minutes each week for each team member? Would it help if you spent less time in meetings that weren’t useful? Is it possible to delegate something that consumes your time that perhaps, one of your talent would consider to be “play” for them? The reason that you don’t have enough time for it is that you haven’t prioritised it.

When coaching talent is a KPI

One Tech company I worked with was having a tough time retaining talent. They would recruit youngsters fresh from university and put them through a structured training and development programme. They would be teaching them the latest technology and the work was more exciting than most similar roles. Then, as soon as they finished their training, their value on the market went sky-high. They could quit one day and walk across the road for twice the pay and they did, in droves.

Exit interviews revealed that more than 90% of these talent felt stressed due to the workload and the way their bosses ignored their pleas for extra time or help when they needed it. When they were approached and offered more money, they felt that they deserved it for putting up with the stress and difficulties.

Developing the managers to actively coach and mentor and tracking weekly interactions as their main (bonus linked) KPI worked wonders for this firm. Even though the talent continued to be approached, less than 3% took the bait.

Interviewing the talent after the implementation of a coaching KPI revealed that talent “felt listened to”, that they were “supported” and were “treated as a valuable asset”.

Listening to and acknowledging talent

There’s nothing quite like being ignored to stoke the fires of resentment. In a Government ministry the “high potential” group were seething with indignation when the senior leader dismissed their complaints as a “childish rant” and “unworthy of his time.”

Whatever the merits of someone’s concerns, if leaders don’t take the time to listen and acknowledge their point of view, it will only breed more and deeper resentment and ill-feeling. Perhaps it is “childish”, perhaps the workload is fair, perhaps the problem is only temporary, yet most of the time we just want someone to pay attention to how we feel about something. Yes, it would be great if they fixed it, but at least empathise with me. When you listen and learn to communicate effectively you begin to have shared situational awareness which will help you overcome most of the issues leaders face daily.

We coached the leaders to listen and pay attention.

Not just to play act as if they were listening, but they were tasked with keeping and sharing notes with identified actions (and non-actions). Each leader held a “town hall” meeting of their team each month and issues, real and imagined were discussed and given air time.

Within 4 months, the “issues” became less and less significant, staff were happier and more engaged in their work. By the end of the year, staff turnover had reduced 14%, and importantly, the “high potential” group were all holding their own “town hall” meetings and being actively groomed by their mentors.

They should respect the promise they made to the firm too

It’s true that some talent have excessive expectations. They want to be promoted despite showing a lack of ability at their current level let alone a higher position. They can be abrasive and belligerent and rather passive aggressive. And perhaps they “should” respect that the form has taken a chance on them too. But how will they learn without a suitable role model?

Fulfilling expectations

When organisations recruit talent, they often over-promise on the benefits. They set great expectations for their new recruits and too frequently miss the small, but significant details of keeping them engaged and productive. Throwing money at the problem in the form of salaries to hold on in desperation often backfires when the other staff are forced to socialise the cost of keeping the talent.

When leaders accept responsibility for retaining and growing talent as an essential part of their role and learn to let go of control and power, then talent has the space to thrive and realistic expectations can be fulfilled.

Back to Brexit

When the UK voted to leave the EU, it was a shock and surprise to those of the “remain” camp. It seemed that the prejudicial, anti-immigration and more right wing elements had somehow prevailed. The UK has long been ignoring the simmering and growing resentment that’s been building.

I remember back in the 70’s and the wonderful promise of European Union. By the end of that decade, the Iron Lady began the process that would close the coal mines, the steel factories, most of UK industry. Farms were laid fallow or smothered in rape.

The then National Front had been silenced for the time being, and London grew into a financial powerhouse with ultra rich young men flashing bonus cheques and mocking the unemployed.

There was great promise, it’s just that some people, the majority it now seems, and their concerns were being dismissed as racist. Certainly the rhetoric was racist and nationalistic, but it’s always easier to blame a common enemy for your woes than accept responsibility, but what the UK leadership failed to do was listen to the concerns. They were dismissed rather than acknowledged and addressed.

Leadership lessons from Brexit

Let’s not make the same mistakes that the political leadership of the UK and Europe made, to assume that logic would prevail. That decency and the “right’ decision would be made. The disaffected in the UK were given a voice, and whether you agree with their reasoning or not, they exercised their choice and left.

The talent in your team always have a choice. Even if there is no other suitor luring them with more cash and benefits, the allure of working for myself is a powerful one, even if a move would be a mistake, they still have a choice. As leaders we need to respect that they have a choice, and right now, they’ve chosen to work for you. Yes, it is a two-way street and perhaps they should be a little more amenable and forgiving. That’s why talent needs real leaders, people who know the way, go the way and show the way. Expect to be a great leader and over fulfil their (and your) expectations.

Next Step

One thing you can do today is choose to listen to someone today. Deliberately and really listen by taking the time to ask questions, acknowledge them and respect them. They won’t be expecting it, but they will appreciate it.
Check out this episode!

Professional Leadership Caddy

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