Why firms leak top talent

2012-12-04 00:00

LEAKING top talent is almost always a sign a business is in trouble or soon will be. Talent retention is critical to corporate performance — all senior executives and board directors say so. It is therefore strange that so many companies simply accept the superficial reasons for departure that are normally trotted out.

International literature on the subject and personal experience with top talent over two decades highlight a dichotomy. We confront convenient truths (often accepted without investigation by human resources departments) and inconvenient truths (which might be upsetting for management and therefore go undebated and unresolved).

The three convenient reasons for a talented individual’s exit are more money, a better opportunity and personal circumstances. Yet American research suggests “88% change jobs because of negative factors in their current workplace”.

Such factors might not be easy to identify. When reviewing the literature it is striking how often the terms “hidden”, “secret” and “the real reasons” crop up. Unsurprisingly, a key book on the subject by US author Leigh Branham is entitled The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave.

Branham says people don’t want to detail the ugly truth when they quit. They find it convenient to say “more money” etc. For their part, companies find it convenient to take their word for it.

However, the inconvenient truths are important for organisations that hope to institute corrective action after experiencing a talent drain.

There may be a multitude of reasons for departure.

After reading the international material you feel tempted to isolate just two reasons: “my job sucks” or “my boss sucks”. However, I have expanded my list of inconvenient truths to three core issues.

1. Passion spent: talented people are not driven by money or job title. They want to be part of something huge. They want to change the world, their industry or specialisation.

They look for work that will define their careers and make a difference. This is why they gravitate to businesses with a new vision that do new things. They are energised by new challenges. Work becomes fun. They feel alive and live for the chance to put their fingerprints on a unique development.

Without satisfaction, without passion, they disengage. Boredom and frustration set in. This is why top talents often complain in confidence that during recruitment the company, the job or the vision was “mis-sold” to them.

2. The bad boss: talented people do not quit the job (unless it was mis-sold); they quit the bad boss. When they are badly managed and receive little feedback, they become restive. A bad boss is a bully, a tyrant and a poor communicator of the vision, the company strategy or the organisational future.

The bad boss may also be a micro-manager who fails to allow subordinates to grow. Talent wants to be empowered, make decisions and take ownership. These individuals want to be stretched. They respond to leadership that shows faith in their skills.

They are annoyed when a boss devalues their contribution or fails to give recognition. A typical comment is “I exceeded all my KPIs and never once received a compliment”.

An inferior superior will not share credit, but is seen to pass on the blame when things go wrong — another source of frustration.

3. Toxic culture: top talent sets high standards and expects to work in an ethical environment at a company that makes a broad contribution — to an industry, to society or to communities.

Top performers are disenchanted by companies that lack a wider sense of purpose (or moral standards). They feel penned in by red tape and bureaucracy. They respond to an entrepreneurial culture. They look to innovate and perhaps take a few risks.

They will head for the exits rather than engage endlessly in humdrum, repetitive work and penny-pinching. Marking time without moving forward is not for them. They feel stifled.

This, of course, suggests that top talent may be feeling rather smothered and frustrated at the moment.

Following the recession, companies have engaged in strenuous cost cutting. Recovery has been slow for many organisations. Some businesses have simply battened down the hatches and delayed any significant investment. New projects may have been on hold for some time. There may be good reasons for this, but unless efforts are made to share a strong vision and communicate some excitement, top talent may start to get a little restive.

That’s an inconvenient truth … but perhaps a timely one.

•Annelize van Rensburg is a co-founder and director of Talent Africa, a provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.

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