How to Keep Your Best Employees
Erika Andersen, Founder/Partner
Over the past few years, a lament I’ve heard time and time again from leaders, especially in big companies, is “Our best people are the ones who leave. They get seduced away by cool startups, or decide to stat their own company, or leap at the chance to work for companies they assume are wonderful, like Google or Apple.”
Finding and keeping great talent is one of the key challenges facing organizations today. So, what’s a leader to do? You can’t single-handedly change the culture of your company to make it more employee-friendly. And you can’t usually do too much to change your organization’s approach to employee compensation or benefits (at least in the short-term).
But one thing you can do: coach your employees to support their growth. Survey after survey shows that people want autonomy, mastery and purpose in their work—even more than they want money or job perks. In other words, people want to do work that has meaning for them (purpose), and they want to get good at it (mastery) so they can do it in a self-initiated and self-directed way (autonomy).
Becoming a skillful coach for your best employees can help give them all three. I’m defining coaching here as deciding with your employees how they can acquire new skills and capabilities (that you both want them to learn), and then supporting their learning. In other words, helping them master new skills and therefore become more autonomous in ways that serve a purpose for them and for the organization.
Here’s a crash course on what you need to be a good coach for your employees:
The Mindset of a Coach: Before we talk about how good coaches behave, let’s focus on how they think. Good coaches have what we call “the mindset of a coach,” which we define as believing in people’s potential and wanting to help them succeed. This mindset results in self-talk like “I really think Joe can grow, I just have to help him get clear on what it will take,” or “Hmm, I wonder what more Sally needs to learn in order to succeed? We should sit down together and figure this out.”
I would go so far as to say that if you don’t have this mindset about an employee you’re trying to coach, you won’t be able to coach that person. Think about it: as an employee, have you ever had a manager who didn’t believe in you? Who wasn’t invested in helping you be successful? For most people, it’s very difficult—like walking through quicksand carrying weights. And it can also be a continual wearing-away of your own positive beliefs about your potential: it’s much harder to believe in yourself when the person who’s responsible for managing your work day-to-day doesn’t believe in you.
I’ve experienced that in my career (no fun!)—but I’ve also experienced having a boss who did believe in me; who thought I was capable and talented and who made it very clear—through his words and actions—that he wanted to help me grow. And even though that was very many years ago, my memory of working for him is an inspiration to me in dealing with the people I manage even today.
Appropriate Developmental Options: Having a variety of developmental options to choose from is an important part of being a good coach. Too many managers, if they think of this at all, simply default to a few favorites: a training, a book, a lecture. For example, one manager I knew had a three-ring notebook of all the procedures in her department; she gave this to each new employee and encouraged them to come to her with questions. That was her coaching option. Usually these default options are either things that have worked for the manager at some point or simply the path of least resistance. (In the example above, it was both). Unfortunately, this one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t take into account how people learn, or what’s appropriate to various levels of experience.
Before we go any further, a quick definition: I define a coaching option as any means by which a person might acquire new skills or knowledge. I suggest that, when considering possible coaching options, you think about all the ways you’ve learned throughout your life—from the most formal to the most informal. But don’t stop there—also think about approaches to learning that you’ve heard about but haven’t tried yourself. Starting from that point will really stretch your mind beyond the boundaries of the few coaching options that may be your “defaults,” and get you started creating a much more varied and useful list. Once you have such a list, it’s also important to make sure that you choose the options most appropriate to a given employee’s skill or experience level. For example, let’s say you’re in marketing, and you and an employee have decided that she needs to build skills in the area of market segmentation. If she’s never done anything in that area before—she’s a complete novice—encouraging her to join an informal group of market segmentation pros isn’t going to be a good coaching option for her; she won’t know how to take advantage of their expertise, and will likely feel completely overwhelmed. On the other hand, recommending a self-study course about the basics of market segmentation might be a great option.
Coaching Skills: Once you’re armed with a supportive mindset and a varied and level-appropriate list of developmental options, you need to know how to coach. Here’s a simple model for helping your employees to acquire new skills and knowledge. (If you’re interested, you can find a more in-depth discussion of this model here):
- Explore: First, have a two-way conversation about the development opportunity you want to target and how to address it. You listen to get a clear idea of your employee’s experience in this area and to understand what he or she will need in order to improve. Then you work with the employee to explore coaching options to meet the needs, given his or her level of experience. You finally make sure there are no obstacles to implementing the option(s), or that they can be overcome.
- Commit: Next, you assure that you’re both agreeing to the same thing, and are clear about how the developmental options will progress. A great way to do that is by having the employee summarize what each of you has agreed to do, then set benchmarks and deadlines for the completion of the developmental options you’ve chosen. It’s also good to have the employee write a summary of your joint commitments.
- Develop: This step happens after the initial conversation, above, and it’s where the rubber meets the road. The employee completes the development options, and you offer feedback about how he or she is doing. Most importantly, you’ll continue to nourish and maintain the mindset of a coach—believing in your employee’s ability to learn in this area, and wanting to help him or her succeed.
I’d go so far as to say coaching is a noble endeavor; true coaches help people become what they are capable of becoming. The benefit to the organization and the employee is clear, especially when the employee is excellent to start with: coaching builds more capability and tends to increase both independence and commitment. But the personal benefit for you, the coach, is also powerful: you get the spiritual, mental and emotional satisfaction that comes from helping someone grow.