Silicon Valley Advisory: Make Talent Retention Personal


It took me by complete surprise. Here I was thinking we were on the same page, that we were doing some good things together and, despite some challenges, we made a pretty good team. So, when one of my brightest early talent employees walked into my office to tell me he was leaving, I asked all of the usual questions, to which he replied: “No it’s not you, it’s me.”

He was a high performer poised for growth, so when he came to me and told me he was taking on a new role at a different company, I was stunned. I quickly ran through all of the reactive questions that come to mind in this kind of situation.

We talked about his pay, but that wasn’t it. More money wouldn’t encourage him to stay. Was it his manager? Nope. Great guy. How about the culture of the company? Not even that.

At the end of the day, he wanted to take a big leap into the next phase of his career, and in his mind, we simply weren’t moving fast enough to promote him.

As you can imagine, I had to take some time to reflect, so I did what any sales leader would do—I looked into the data to find a potential pattern for a much larger problem than just one individual’s departure. When I reviewed my company’s retention stats, I was impressed to learn that the average tenure for our approximately 4,000 Bay Area employees is 7.99 years today, and it was pretty close to that three years ago when the company’s average tenure was 7.27 years.

That’s not bad considering many of our neighbors in the Valley have about 2 years as their average tenure. Granted, we’ve been employing people locally since the late 80s (and even further back to the 70s when we were established in Germany), so many of our people have had the opportunity for long-tenured careers when compared to the Facebooks, Googles, and our other younger tech companies in the neighborhood.

It’s also a good thing to see movement within, and outside of, an organization’s talent pool because it brings fresh ideas and perspectives into the business. My company’s high tenure stats tell me there’s a great deal of commitment and passion by employees for our business—we’ve got a culture and a purpose that resonates with our people.

This year’s 2018 SAP Integrated Report cited an 85% employee engagement index. I can tell you all of the important programs and benefits that are provided to our employees as an explanation for why this is so impressive. Or, I can tell you what I see and experience every day, which is that employees are proud and motivated to work for a company that values and encourages diversity, provides an environment for continuous learning, uses technology to help employees work and live at their best, and cultivates leaders who can confidently carry our mission and culture of inclusion forward.

It’s this last point—the importance of leaders ‘walking the talk’ that I believe is actually the secret sauce for retaining talent. Sure, a high employee engagement index means most of our employees are happy and motivated to work here, and we have our strong company culture to thank for much of that.

But what can we do as leaders to ensure we’re not letting anyone slip through the cracks? Believe it or not, it’s the softer stuff that keeps people engaged and loyal. And it isn’t only a company’s job to keep people, it’s actually ours.

Culture Matters

Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear that company culture matters. But we shouldn’t underestimate the value and impact of a team culture. Here’s where you come in: Being intentional about what you and your team should stand for and defining the culture you want is only part of it. The key to making it happen is to walk the talk yourself.

I’ve got a team of 300 people—I talk all the time about grit and working with a relentless “never give up” attitude, so I reward and recognize the individuals who embody these traits. We also talk about bringing the person you are at home to work—it may sound cheesy, but when we have our all-hands meetings, we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and personal milestones. Have a kid who just graduated from high school or college? Just get married or have a baby? We want to know about it, celebrate it, and make our people feel comfortable to share these important life moments!

This kind of culture may not fit you or your team, which is why establishing a team culture cannot be successful without authenticity. But I promise, if you put in the effort, and be deliberate about it, your employees will find something to identify with, and that’s loyalty points that you just can’t pay for.

Intentional Mentorship is a Must

There’s a difference between casual mentorship and mentoring with intention. If you’re a leader, I encourage you to take on fewer mentees—these should be employees who show motivation and an eagerness to learn, and that you know will roll up his or her sleeves to get to work, sometimes taking on more than is required. You should also be prepared to devote time to listen, coach, establish development plans, and assign stretch assignments—make this experience as actionable as you can, and your mentee will thank you for it. Another reminder: This should not be just a “one and done.” Regularly follow up, help make connections among your network, and be a reliable coach who guides where needed, and celebrates the victories.

Mentorship takes time and personal investment, so plan, and commit to it, accordingly.

New Experiences are the Crown Jewel

Especially with the millennial generation—but still true across the general work population—people want new and different experiences. As leaders, we often get bogged down with overseeing our teams as they complete the tasks at hand. Thinking ahead and giving an employee an opportunity to try something new, even if they don’t yet have the skillset, takes some time and planning.

But in the end, exposing them to different areas of the business will give the skills development opportunities needed for that next big career move. At my company, we offer fellowships, which encourages employees to take two to six-month rotations into a new role or organization. The employees return to their original roles when the fellowship is complete—they often uncover new interests they didn’t know they had, and new skills that help them take on more or different responsibility.

Even if you don’t have an official program like this one, there’s still so much you can do on your own: Bring high potential employees into your circle. Expose them to the challenges of the business and ask for their insights. Have them lead a challenging project with your guidance. When you give talent a seat at the table and give them access to the learning experiences they’re looking for, they’ll be a lot less likely to look elsewhere to make the next leap.

Talent Retention is Personal

Retention matters, not just because of the costs involved to backfill a vacated role. But because it should matter to you personally. It’s more than just free breakroom snacks, massage rooms on campus, or any other workplace perks. These are nice, but they don’t pay the bills, advance careers, or leave lasting impressions.

We want our teams to feel valued, engaged, motivated, and productive, so it only makes sense that we’d make it our personal mission to find ways to develop and retain our best people. If we’re not consistent about it, employees (my early talent employee included) will leave.

It’s in your hands to be intentional about retention—you’ll see the results and feel good about it, too.

Photo of John McGee courtesy of SAP

Based in Palo Alto, John McGee is the Senior Vice President for SAP North America and leads the market unit’s overall strategy, business operations, customer, and partner engagements. Follow @JohnTMcGee

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