…So I have been thinking a lot about retention lately – specifically about how two people with similar careers and backgrounds can be in the exact same 1. I wondered about the etymology of the phrase “Happy as a Lark” as I wrote this. For the curious, it is originally “Derived from comparison to the seemingly cheerful birdsong of a lark. I’d never considered Lark’s to have especially cheerful sounds, but also can’t place the sound right now. The more you learn…”roles… but one person can be happy as a lark 1 while the other becomes miserable enough to ultimately leave the organization. And from there I started to think about what a massive role the management of expectations plays on talent retention: From the time we recruit talent as external hires to the time they leave the organization, their engagement and intent to stay is basically driven by how closely what an employee expects a company to do lines up with what they actually do.

For example(s): Did an employee agree to join your organization at 20% below what he/she made previously? Okay, fine, but what were their expectations around what would happen with their salary down the line (and did you meet them)? Or conversely, what about that employee that joined your firm even though it meant moving to an undesirable town? Does he/she expect to move somewhere better in two years? …Or how about that rock star individual contributor you love? Does he/she expect to be in their role for much longer before getting a new title/being put in a people manager job etc.? How about that employee that you transferred into a cross-functional role as a stretch? Does he/she view it as adding value for his/her career?

…I think that leaders in organizations the world over make a lot of talent decisions like the ones above everyday involving without knowing the expectations of their people. But I also think leaders that understand what their talent wants still often make the just as harmful mistake of identifying the aspirations without setting reachable goal posts and appropriate expectations.

Basically, an effective employee talent retention strategy needs to do three things:

1. Identify employee career desires and clearly define the KSAs and critical experiences required to reach their next move

2. Provide an overview for all employees of the potential career paths available internally and the corresponding abundance (or lack) of opportunities for each pathway

3. Make a concerted effort to open doors for move-ready talent

^Organizations that do these things well win the talent management game because they (i) don’t make hires whose career expectations they can’t meet, (ii) know through their talent review process what employees are prospective retention risks before they reach a point where they’re ready to move on and (iii) develop a deep bench of employees that are ready and willing to move into new opportunities as they open up.

…This stuff doesn’t happen over night, though. It requires top-down commitment throughout the organization to having aspirational conversations with all employees, outlining a realistic development plan to get them to their desired next step, and then (most importantly) creating opportunities for people once they’re ready. For organizations that are in the early stages of this process (i.e. they don’t even know what their employees want yet) this can seem like a daunting task, but when done well a company should have a deep enough talent pipeline that going external is mostly limited to campus/entry-level hires and the top of the house where leadership opportunities become so scarce that you lose talented people as a matter of course.

I have more to write on this… but I need to think on it some more. Just a Friday thought stream…

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.