Monday, March 10, 2008

How to Keep Your Best in Uncertain Times

The business environment has been changing so rapidly over the last several years. And it's been said that the only thing we can count on these days is change itself. That's not entirely true. Another constant that you can absolutely depend on is the essential importance of being able to keep (and attract) top talent for your company. Whether the economy (or your industry or your business itself) is contracting or expanding, the principle is the same: Your future depends on passionate, dedicated, innovative top talent that is deeply and emotionally engaged in your company's critical mission. Here's how you can cultivate the true engagement of your employees and build your company's reputation as the place where their dreams go to thrive – no matter how bitterly the winds of change may blow:

Lose the carrot: You're putting yourself at a huge disadvantage if you're still thinking of employee motivation and compensation in old-fashioned, one-dimensional terms (well, two dimensions, because with the carrot comes the stick).

Today's employees are savvy consumers. They read the headlines. They know they're in charge of their own careers. They know very little is guaranteed in today's job market. And they can certainly spot smoke and “spin” a mile away.

As a leader, you know you don't need to be duped – or bribed – into performance. Nor do you need the threat of punishment in case of non-performance. It's the same with your employees. A truly world-class team doesn't need the old tricks. It needs inspiration, not motivation. And trust. And respect. And opportunities to remember how their own personal sense of purpose dovetails with your company's mission critical objectives.

Replace the carrot with value proposition: Inspire your employees with frequent messages about the intrinsic value of your company. How does the company and its products make the world a better place? In my research into joy in the American workplace, I discovered that value propositions boil down to three basic elements. Does your company relieve pain? Restore hope? Bring beauty into the world? There's a connection here somewhere to benefiting the human condition. Even companies whose products are far removed from individual consumption can make that connection. A current commercial for Lockheed Martin, for instance, celebrates its employees and the amazing amount of volunteer work they do. Not everyone buys a fighter jet on a daily basis, but everyone appreciates the chance to personally invest their efforts in improving the world.

Tell ‘em what they want to hear – the truth : Today's employees are savvy consumers. They read the headlines. They know they're in charge of their own careers. They know very little is guaranteed in today's job market. And they can certainly spot smoke and “spin” a mile away. If things are about to get hairy, say so (keeping within the boundaries of Sarbanes-Oxley, of course). In that environment of mutual trust and respect, your inspired top talent will more likely pitch in than jump ship. Give them the chance to make informed decisions for themselves and for the organization, and the company will benefit from the assembled brain trust.

Accept only first-rate performers: Like attracts like. And top employees like it when they work with people who share their standards, expectations of excellence and work values. Even at times when all the goodies, benefits and perks disappear, you'll find that your most cherished employees will hang in there because they're on a team that thrives on top performance and cutting-edge abilities. Don't dilute the excellence-quotient by hiring more affordable, or more readily attainable, candidates. You'll find out later how expensive they really are.

Don't tolerate the tyrants: Success doesn't necessitate either taking one's lumps or dishing them out. When you have a star performer whose talents and visions distinguish the company but who leaves a smoking trail of destruction and wounded feelings wherever he or she goes, it's a net loss. Companies that are widely admired for having cultures that foster dedication and innovation also have this in common: They insist on basic human decency. Even Google, the most recent of the splashy (and successful) Internet IPOs has as its basic operating premise: Don't be evil.

Listen as much as you talk – preferably more: Employee engagement programs are expensive. And the reason why so many fail is that the communication is all too often one-sided. Yes, it's important for your employees to repeatedly hear the message that they're sincerely valued in a company that's great to work for. And this is the message that most employee engagement programs are built around. But the second, most vital piece of the engagement initiative is to give the employees a turn at the proverbial microphone. No, this isn't about employee surveys (when was the last time you personally felt glad to be aggregated?). This is about creating a workplace environment where employees are encouraged to speak from their hearts about how and why they love their work – and why their jobs are especially meaningful to them at this time in their lives.

Create perfect work, not perfect jobs: Remember, your top employees are savvy consumers. They know the realities of the marketplace and the job world. They also know that no job is perfect. There's always some kind of drawback: money, working conditions, stability, you name it. But there is such a thing as perfect work – work that is so inspiring, so meaningful, so important to making the world a better place that it holds its own magnetizing spell on your team of top talent – regardless of the external conditions. The C Factor – its compellingness – is irresistible. And the C Factor can be found in the worst of all possible external conditions. Still, the joy and dedication prevail.

In my book, In the Face of Uncertainty, Curt Carlson, CEO and President of the Silicon Valley research firm, SRI International, said it best: “There's a real need for people to do a terrific job. It drives them forward in ways you can never force on them managerially. It's when you create an organization that taps into that need that you find people who are incredibly resilient. They'll work incredible hours. They'll wake up in the morning thinking about their work. They'll suffer a hundred defeats because they see an opportunity to make an impact...when the critical organizational ingredients are in place, it's remarkable how often they'll eventually succeed.”

And when they succeed, you succeed.

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