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.
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.
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.