Making the magic happen

I’m constantly keeping my antennae up for eye-catching bits regarding retention, the workplace, professional development, and careers. I came across an article by Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt in Harvard Business Review entitled “How to Keep Your Top Talent” which identifies six common mistakes employers make in retaining employees identified as “top talent.” The article defines top talent as ideal employees with three primary characteristics—ability, engagement, and aspiration—and describes the magical sparks that fly when employers foster all three calling cards rather than focusing on one or two.

As a faculty member, I plan to use the article as a class exercise (spoiler alert for my Comp I and II students this fall) because it’s a great piece, is recent enough to be considered relevant to the world of work, and is interesting enough to avoid inducing lots of yawns and eye rolls from my students.

At the 2015 AACE Conference in Springdale, Arkansas

At the 2015 AACE Conference in Springdale, Arkansas

I benefited professionally as an instructor from reading the article. But I also read the article because as a former director of career development who is still enamored with the field, demonstrated by my choice to spend a day of my summer vacation at the Arkansas Association of Colleges and Employers conference learning from experts in the fields of recruiting and career development, I must also think about how this applies to me, my journey, and my career circles in higher education.

I do believe there are some corporations, and perhaps some universities, with excellent recruitment strategies in place and with even better retention plans. These organizations value their employees and can afford to spend time recruiting great employees, training employees once hired, and then building the morale of their employees on a regular basis through various means. Perhaps these types of corporations read the article “How to Keep Your Top Talent” and belly laugh, point fingers at the other corporations with problems, and go enjoy a game of pool after work together.

Based on my experience—having worked in a fairly wide variety of non-profit organizations, large corporations, small businesses, and private and public universities—I’d guess the number of corporations able to react to “How to Keep Your Top Talent” in this manner is teeny tiny.

All companies and organizations have problems and are, whether we want to admit it or not, dysfunctional on some level. They’re just trying to do the best they can with what they have.

So if you’re top talent, what do you do with THAT? What’s your part in it, if you’re holding the three magic cards? Just accept that you’re part of a screwed up organization, and deal with it? Accept that the company you work for sucks, will never pay you what you’re worth, may never provide you with opportunities for growth or advancement, does nothing to boost the morale of its employees, and keep suiting up and showing up?

Not exactly, but sort of…

I know. That’s not what you were expecting me to say, is it?

First, as a disclaimer, let me state that I self-identify as top talent. I believe my current and former employers will cosign this statement. I have great ability, am highly engaged, and aspire to accomplish great things. I’m always labeled as the over-achiever (okay, super nerd, maybe). The “highly engaged” part has varied depending on the organization and its level of ethics and commitment to me. I’m probably most engaged with my current employer… and more on that later.

So back to the question at hand. If you’re top talent, and you’re in a not-so-ideal situation with a corporation making at least a few of the mistakes mentioned in this article, how do you deal? What are your options?

  • Get out. Pack your bags, give your notice, and go on vacation. Or at least begin searching for gainful employment elsewhere. I’ve gone this route before—multiple times, actually. It’s not a terrible plan. The problem is that wherever you go, there you are. If you think you’ll find a better fit, you might be right. However, having run the gamut of work environments as previously mentioned over a decade and a half, let me gently warn you that you might also be wrong. But go ahead and find out for yourself. Some of us—if you’re anything like me, anyway—have to learn things for ourselves, even if that means doing it the hard way, over and over and over again. And really, the worst thing that can happen is you wind up with a resume full of short stints you’ll have to explain later and lots of interesting work experiences. Join the club.
  • Look at ways to grow within your organization. Does your organization offer opportunities for professional development (which are often free or at reduced rates)? Many employers encourage employees to take courses, even on the clock, or go to graduate school. My employer, for example, will reimburse a certain percentage of college tuition if I attend a school within the University of Arkansas System. The AACE Conference I mentioned earlier? This is a professional development opportunity, too.
  • If you have ideas and feel your creative juices flowing, take that good stuff to your leader. If your leader isn’t receptive, take it to your leader’s leader. What do you have to lose? You’re bored anyway, and you were thinking about packing your bags and taking your talent elsewhere. You might as well try to utilize your ability and creativity where you are right now before moving on. Who knows what changes you could implement? My old approach when I took a new job was this: find the holes and problems, and fill them and fix them, and then move on. That typically took me one year to 18 months. I got bored very quickly. My new approach is to dig in and dig deep. I teach three courses. I might teach the same three courses for a decade or even longer. How can I become a better instructor within those constraints? How can I collaborate with other departments? How can I create better assessment tools from semester to semester? There is no such thing as perfection when it comes to teaching or interacting with students.
With one of my former students on awards night, spring 2015

With one of my former students on awards night, spring 2015

I often plop myself down in my Vice Chancellor’s office (when he’s available to talk, of course) and share my brilliant visions with him (I’m sure he’s thrilled to see me coming each time). He’s actually really supportive, encouraging, and motivational. If I bring him a bit of a concept for an event, like our first ever Summer Institute for Teaching Excellence (SITE) event I created, which we’re hosting next week on campus, he doesn’t balk and start rattling off reasons why it won’t work. He normally asks what is entailed, tells me to go for it, and asks how he can help.

This is one reason I have finally drawn the magical third card, with no tears or tatters this time, completing the top talent trio for myself and reaching what I believe is, for myself, the most fulfilled professional pinnacle. I am fully engaged with my division, fully engaged in academics, fully collaborating across the lines of staff/faculty, and fully engaged with my students. I’m also fully engaged outside of campus, attempting to maintain connections with recruiters, employers, and other contacts in order to better serve my students. Is my campus perfect? Absolutely not. I’m just making the choice to engage anyway.

So back to my personal response to the question: “What’s your part in it, if you’re holding the three magic cards, and your organization isn’t perfect?”

You get busy. You do something about it. You stop whining and gossiping and belly-aching and sitting on your tail in your office and doing the same old-same old-same old day after day. You accept the things you cannot change and ask for courage to change the things you can. And by all means, seek wisdom to know the difference. You smile often even if others don’t. You spend your time around elevator people who bring you up and avoid basement people who drag you down. You pour yourself into what you love.

The choice is ultimately yours. Sure, those around you will always make mistakes, including your company or organization. But are you going to let those mistakes determine and affect your daily choices regarding your own ability, engagement, and aspiration?

That’s your mistake to make—but since you’re top talent, I’m sure you’ll focus on making the magic happen.

Doing motherhood like a dude

My closest friends may snort laugh in agreement when I admit that I’m a bit of a dude. I’m not just referring to my somewhat crude sense of humor or ability to belch with the best of them. I’ve also been accused of being cold and calculated when it comes to communication, choosing the content-only approach in terms of listening response styles, and often deferring to my analytical and critical nature, not just in the classroom, but in relationships as well. I will admit that I’ve been more in love with jobs than with men in the past and have found more fulfillment in climbing the ladder, corporate or not, and have thus poured myself into becoming smarter and better.

About eight years ago, my life took a turn for the worse—but ultimately for the better—when I faced challenging personal obstacles while going through marital and financial problems. I chose to become better, not bitter, and embarked on a journey of personal growth and recovery. Part of that journey involved me letting go of some of my die-hard defects of character which I’d never identified as defects—including that desire to run faster, jump higher, and fix every problem in the workplace. But old habits die hard, and I still find myself adopting that mindset in the here and now.

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Maggie savoring a cupcake from Mama, April 2015

A few days ago, I found myself scraping gunk from our hardwood kitchen floor beneath Maggie’s high chair while she ran back and forth between the kitchen and living room, pushing and slamming her huge yellow dump truck into the furniture and front door. I use the term “gunk” because I have absolutely no idea what the gunk consisted of. Yogurt? Maybe. I don’t know, and I don’t care.

After about two minutes of scraping gunk off the floor with a plastic putty knife—I’m not joking. It is the only tool that would remove the stuff.—Maggie decided I’d had enough of a break from play time. She grabbed my arm with her pudgy hand and forcefully demanded that we play together. I am sure there’s some fool in the world who would sigh and deny requests made by my precious princess, but it’s not going to be me. I give that baby what she wants.

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Maggie with one of her baby chickens, April 2015

So off we go to Maggie’s room, moving from books about rainbows and chickens to Melissa and Doug sound puzzles to pretending to blow bubbles from Easter eggs (I have no idea how she came up with that game, but it’s a cute one) to cooking potato chips in a skillet on her little kitchen stove… all in a matter of 20-30 minutes. I try to smile the whole time, come up with ways to insert little learning activities and lessons about life and emotions and God and the alphabet into conversations, and feel exhausted almost the entire time we are playing.

I am beginning to think I suck at this job of being Maggie’s mom; I used to think I was so good at it.

I remember when I worked at McDonald’s in high school, standing at the counter on a slow Friday night, our only customers choosing to use the drive-thru lane aside from a few families who’d come in to eat together. I remember wiping off the tables every 30 minutes and cleaning the bathrooms once an hour, only to have something to occupy my time and keep myself busy. For some reason, that feeling of killing time and staring at the clock in McDonald’s and waiting for the next shift to roll around reminds me of the feeling I often have as Maggie’s mom when I’m here alone with her—just waiting for her dad to get home from work, or waiting until nap time, or waiting until bed time so I can unwind and go to bed myself. I feel guilty writing this, but it’s the truth.

And then it hits me—I’m allowing the dude in me to be Mom.

Therein lies the problem.

I’m applying my analytical and critical, fix the problems in every workplace, run harder and jump higher and be smarter and better, lean in and dig my fingernails in and grit my teeth and work work work mentality to my RELATIONSHIP with my daughter. I’m approaching my relationship with my daughter as if it were a job.

But it’s not a job. It’s a relationship.

God did not interview me and hire me to be Maggie’s mom. I’m not being paid a salary to do the millions of things I do as her mom. I don’t undergo performance reviews, and no one manages me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMaggie is not a product of my hard work or an end result or trophy for me to put on a shelf or parade around in Facebook photos. It’s not my job to ensure brilliance before she attends Montessori Christian Academy so the staff will be super impressed by my ability to educate Maggie while also working full-time.

I’m going to try to remember that I’m not on the clock. Every second I have with my daughter is a blessing, but if I’m viewing my relationship with Maggie as work, I’m going to approach it with a tight jaw and will most likely place ridiculous expectations on both of us. And life is too short for that.