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Culture Wins When You Listen to Your Top Performers

Culture Wins When You Listen to Your Top Performers

by Nate Dvorak and Ryan Pendell

Story Highlights

  • Retention is a challenge in today's tight labor market
  • Learn what affects your retention with "stay conversations"
  • Create a culture that retains top performers

Retention is challenging for many organizations, especially in today's tight labor market when 63% of full-time employees say it is "somewhat likely" or "very likely" that they could find as good a job as the one they have now.

Retention can also be complicated. Pay and promotions alone can't keep your best people. And your top performers likely come from different generations and demographic backgrounds.

One recent client we worked with discussed a common theme they heard from internal focus groups: Young millennials want employers to invest in them and their personal development. Older millennials, often with young children, value more work flexibility.

Gender plays a factor as well. The percentage of women in the workforce is actually on the decline. The biggest workplace demand for women? Flexibility. Forty-six percent of female employees say flextime is the most important benefit a company can offer its workers.

Another common reason for early exits is the feeling that job expectations don't match job realities. For example, people often start careers in nursing because they love healing people. But some end up hating the position if they find that most of their job is actually about compliance, administrative paperwork, etc. The thing they signed up for (caring for others) is not what they get to do most days.

But retention is also a question of culture. Consider this: Seventy-one percent of millennials who strongly agree that they know what their organization stands for and what makes it different from its competitors say they plan to stay with their company for at least one year. That number falls to 30% for millennials who strongly disagree.

In other words, if your employees can't define your organization's identity -- and what's distinctive about it -- they are likely to head for the exit. This means culture needs to be a part of any retention strategy.

The Overlooked Stay Conversation

There's some debate over the best way to do exit interviews and how valuable they are. But there's one kind of interview that most organizations fail to do -- stay conversations. The concept is simple: Identify your top performers who you hope will stay with you the longest, and ask them why they stay. They may say things like:

  • "I have the best manager I've ever had."
  • "I enjoy developing a product that changes the world."
  • "I probably couldn't find a job with this kind of flexibility for my family."

Great managers already ask -- on a regular basis -- why their employees stay. It's an important question because the answer is different for each person and because the answers can surprise you. What's more, managers certainly regret not having this conversation when their best people choose to go work for another organization.

Great organizations also regularly gather insights from "stay conversations" on a more formal basis. This can be done through small-group discussions.

But the next step is crucial -- taking that feedback and shaping your culture around your top performers' feedback. Too often, organizational cultures form around what average performers want. The result? More average performers apply, get hired and stay. High performers may even stay away.

Another thing to note is the percentage of excellent hires that leave before the end of their first year. If a large number of high-talent individuals are moving on within 12 months, it could be a sign of a serious culture issue. This is where exit interviews provide the most value, particularly when they focus on top performers, critical roles and key moments in the employee lifecycle.

In the last 12 months, what percentage of your high performers have left the organization?

Organizations Need an "Always On" Listening Approach to Culture

So what does it mean to build a culture around high performance?

  • You listen to the needs and wants of your highest performers. You know where, when, how and why they want to work.
  • You shape your culture to connect your overall strategy with what top performers value most and what enables their success.
  • You regularly check-in, formally and informally, with top performers for "stay conversations" to make sure your strategy is on target over the long run.

Pay and promotions are rarely enough to retain star employees. In a competitive market, culture makes the difference.

High performers have many opportunities, but culture wins when it comes to retention by making them hesitate to leave behind a unique culture -- one they value and can't get anywhere else.

Start understanding and building a culture that makes your top performers want to stay:

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