September 13, 2011

Want to Retain Great People? Here’s the Secret

One of the most important jobs of a leader is to recruit and keep great people.  After all, the strength, motivation and ability of the people on your team will determine your success or failure.

People ask me all the time “Chris, how do I retain great people?”

My answer is simple — “Think of the people who work on your team as your customers.”

My most important product is not our jobs service.  My most important product is called “working at our company.”  And the people who work at Navigos Search and VietnamWorks are the consumers of this product.

I imagine that every morning each of our people wakes up and makes a decision: “Do I want to buy Chris’ product again today?”  As long as the answer is “yes,” then they stay at the company.  When the answer is “no,” they decide to move on.

People answering “yes” day after day is called “retention.”

It really is as simple as that.

“Ok smart guy,” you’re thinking.  “How do you get people to buy your product day after day for years at at time?”

Another simple answer — I focus on increasing the value of my product so that it’s higher than the value of my competitors’ products.

I find that everything falls into place when I think about working at our company as a product and our people as customers of that product.

Figure out what your best customers want, then give it to them.

I’ve found that the best customers generally want the same things — training, a fun and pleasant working environment, good salary and benefits, challenge, opportunity for advancement and, perhaps most importantly, meaningful work and recognition.

This isn’t rocket science.  No expensive consultants or “talent retention strategy matrices” needed.  It’s just plain common sense.  But you have to take ACTION for it to work.

What are you doing to provide training for people?  Are you putting your time and money where your mouth is?  How about your  working environment?  Is it comfortable, friendly and fun?  Do you promote from within?  Do you talk about your mission and purpose constantly so people understand how their work adds value in the world?  Do you praise often for a job well done?  Do you stretch and challenge your people so they don’t get bored?  Do you reward people financially if they rise above and contribute massive value?

Do these things well, day after day, and your people always will choose your ‘product’ over your competitors’.

[You also might enjoy my interview on Retaining Great People.]

  • That’s interesting, Chris, that you look at your employees with a different perspective, seeing them as customers rather than employees. But it makes so much sense, and extremely easy and almost intuitive when it’s looked at with that kind of angle. I think many bosses/leaders take their roles as bosses and leaders too literally when they run their company, and see themselves as the more superior person. And, naturally, that makes sense in terms of hierarchy, but when it’s broken down the way you did, it’s almost like saying I am who I am because of the people I work with.

    I played doubles in tennis in high school, and my coach always says, “You’re only as strong as your weakest partner,” meaning you can be the best tennis player on the team, but if you’re paired up with the weakest player, your level of play will only be as good as them. So in order to be good as a team, you both have to work together and nurture each others’ strengths. It’s fitting in sports and at work. Plus, seeing your employees like they’re your customers will cause you to have a more natural attitude of treating them better and wanting to retain them.

    Great post!

  • Chris

    Thanks for your colorful comment, Linda.

    Yes, thinking about your people as your customers really shifts your entire frame of reference for the better. When you think this way, it becomes very intuitive to figure out how to add more value to your ‘product’ and keep loyal customers.

    This isn’t to say that you can’t be demanding of people, as long as you do it in the right way. The best people love a challenge and love the feeling of achievement that focused, hard work brings.

    A leader’s #1 job is building his or her team. The higher you go, the more critical this job is. Treating your people as your customers goes a long way to helping recruit and retain the great people you must have to reach the highest levels of excellence.

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  • Jessica Mccleary

    Chris, I struggle with the reward part for my employees. I pay a bonus based on sales, and there is one particular employee who set a goal for himself this last winter season and is most likely going to attain it. I want to reward him, but am struggling with what would be considered a good reward. What do you think? A % of his salary (he is an hourly employee)… any ideas or help here would be great.

    • Hi Jess,

      Wow, your employee set a goal and worked like hell to achieve it? That’s great. You are doing something very right there in Park City. This is an awesome opportunity for you.

      My suggestion is to give him cash and some kind of fun/wacky gift that is personalized to him. If he’s a fisherman, a fishing rod or funny fishing hat. If he likes hot rods, a little car with a Barbie in it. The more personal and funny you can make it the more effective the gift will be.

      Give it to him at a special occasion. Call all your employees together. Tell the story about how he set a goal for himself last year. Describe in detail how he struggled. Put some drama in it. Then tell how he conquered. Tell everyone how he is an example for you and has inspired you to do xyz better. Then give him the gag gift in front of everyone. You’ll all have a good laugh.

      When everyone thinks all he gets is a gag gift, say “Oh no I almost forgot!” and pull out an envelope of cash. How much is up to you, but make it material. Give it to him in front of everyone.

      The actual gift/cash you give is important, but much more important is the *way* you give him the gift and how you make him feel in front of others. If you do it right (and you can) it will be his best day of the year. He will work harder than ever, and he’ll set an example for others.

      Bear in mind that you are setting a precedent here. Think through the implications. Others will expect bonuses if they achieve big things. You might use the occasion to standardize some kind of annual or bi-annual challenge and goal. The goal should be extraordinary though, not just a gimme.

      Let me know how it goes!