Keeping talented employees beyond the first year

Imagine you’ve just come back from a great holiday, only to get one of the most distressing pieces of news a manager can hear. The new leader you hired less than a year ago is quitting. On top of that, it took about 6 months of hard recruiting to find them. Or, perhaps you can relate to the person who is leaving because you too find yourself swimming upstream and wanting to quit. 

One of the biggest challenges facing organizations is the cost of continually recruiting and training new team members. The bigger the job, the higher the price. For the person coming onboard the biggest challenge is often the surprising rejection and disdain they receive. Being the “new kid on the block” is not very satisfying, and most organizations do a terrible job of helping people assimilate. All the excitement and energy that a new hire brings to the table is often dampened down by too many weeks of unsuccessfully trying to fit in. I have seen many talented people decide to leave an organization within the first year.

Savvy hiring managers know that they can be proactive in this regard. In the current environment of low supply and high demand, you need to do whatever you can to ease the awkward and stressful transition onboard.

  1. Make yourself more available in the first few months. Unfortunately, too many busy leaders believe they can afford to hire great people and then virtually ignore them. It’s a sink-or-swim mentality that is unfair and unkind. Even the most experienced and senior professionals can become discouraged and disgruntled in such circumstances. If you are typically not in the office much, make sure that the new person knows that you welcome phone messages and emails. Then be sure to prioritize these and answer them. Schedule regular check-ins, even an informal coffee chat to see how it’s going.
  2. Be the culture guide. Help explain how the organization works, but go beyond the formal organization charts. Culture is a system of shared beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that develop over time. Every organization’s culture is distinct. It may be hard for you to talk about the culture concretely; it’s like asking a fish to describe the water it’s swimming in. Answering these questions will help:  What does it take to succeed here? How are decisions made? How do people communicate – what methods and what protocol is normal? Where does informal power and influence exist in the formal structure?
  3. Share historical background and facts. One of the biggest mistakes we make in communicating is that we assume people around us know what we know. For newcomers, this is a minefield. Each time something comes up they must wonder, “is there something that happened in the past that I need to know about?” and then they have to decide whether to ask more questions – running the risk of reminding others that they are still an outsider. Organizational history is seldom documented, but it resides in people’s memories and in the myths and legends that drive acceptable behaviours. Don’t forget to give your new employee the backdrop when you assign them a task. Include personal history and office politics, while respecting people’s privacy. If it’s a well-known fact that the head of Marketing can’t stand the head of Finance, let them in on it.
  4. Publicly support the changes you’ve asked them to implement. In my coaching work I have often listened to disgruntled and discouraged leaders a few months after they have joined an organization. Often, their fiery passion for creating change was appreciated in the job interview. The power of their fresh viewpoint may have been the reason they were hired. However, once in the job, it became clear that there would be a lot of resistance to changing the status quo. They may hear “That’s not what we do around here” or “Well, just ignore what you’ve been told because it’ll never work.” Your preparatory culture talks (see point 3 above) will help them stand against this. But what is most powerful is your direct and visible support. Stand up in team meetings and express your support. Don’t be subtle. Tell your team and colleagues that you will not tolerate insubordination or sabotage. Don’t allow passive/aggressive behaviours. Explain that negative thoughts and opinions should be shared openly and in the spirit of support for the newcomer. Welcome oppositional information only when the intention is to minimize risks and accelerate success.
  5. Guard against burnout. Professionals new to a job are often harder on themselves than they need to be. If they are internally motivated, they may be driven to learn as much as they can, as quickly as possible. They may have decided to forego personal or leisure activities to concentrate solely on their new workplace accountabilities. People inside the organization can consciously, or unconsciously, add to the strain and the workload. There is a lot of pressure in looking at stacks of background files and previous meeting minutes dumped into your in-box. You can help by giving the new employee permission to ease in. Make sure they take vacation and breaks – you know they will make better decisions when they are rested and alert.
  6. Implement a formal assimilation process. Some larger organizations have a structured process that is mandatory for new leaders, and team members joining established groups. Facilitated by an outsider, it is really a conversation about expectations. This serves two purposes: it brings forward topics that might take months to surface, and it shows you are committed to a smooth and effective transition for everyone involved. Ask your HR department if they can provide such a service or hire an OD consultant.

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