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January 23, 2018

Why your top performers quit (and how to retain them)

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jan. 30, 2019.

    Read Advisory Board's take: Why you need to conduct a 'stay interview' with top performers

    It's the job, more so than the boss, that determines whether an employee stays in seat—and that means managers should spend less time finding the right people for a job and more time crafting a job around the talents of a star employee, Lori Goler and her colleagues from Facebook write in the Harvard Business Review.

    Goler, head of People at Facebook, and her colleagues wanted to figure out why employees leave their jobs at Facebook. They assumed people left because of poor management, but an engagement survey pointed to a different result: Facebook employees were largely happy with their managers—if they left their job, it was because of they felt their work wasn't enjoyable, didn't engage their talents, or didn't provide career growth, Goler and her colleagues write.

    And when Facebook's People Analytics team used the engagement survey data to predict who would stay or leave over the next six months, they learned that the employees most likely to remain found their work enjoyable 31% more often, used their strengths 33% more frequently, and had 37% more confidence that they were learning what the needed to develop their careers.

    In turn, these findings "highligh[t] three ways that managers can customize experiences for their people," Goler and colleagues write. 

    1. Playing to the employee's passions and strengths

    "If you want to keep your people—especially your stars—it's time to pay more attention to how you design their work," Goler and colleagues write. "Most companies design jobs and then slot people into them. Our best managers sometimes do the opposite: When they find talented people, they're open to creating jobs around them."

    At Facebook, for instance, that might mean rotating out employees who are excelling in one role to a new position they enjoy more. Another strategy involves "entry interviews"—as opposed to the more traditional exit interviews—in which managers sit down with new employees to ask them about their favorite work projects, passions outside of work, and moments of feeling "in the flow" at work. "Armed with that knowledge," Goler and colleagues write, "managers can build engaging roles from the start."

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    2. Exercising underdeveloped strengths

    While few people reach exceptional levels of accomplishment in multiple fields, "many talented individuals are polymaths," Goler and colleagues write—but those myriad skills are often stifled by limited job descriptions and circumscribed roles. To fully engage your talented employees, managers should "create opportunities for [employees] to use their strengths," whether that's by crafting a new role tailored to a particular individual or tracking employees' expertise in a searchable database "to put employees' strengths on display so that people know whom to contact."

    3. Maintaining a work-life balance

    According to Goler and colleagues, it's also important for managers to "work with people to minimize [personal life] trade-offs by creating career opportunities that mesh with personal priorities." For instance, at Facebook, one employee's manager designed a travel prioritization plan for an employee so that she could feel comfortable balancing her work and home life after returning from maternity leave. 

    "People leave jobs, and it's up to managers to design jobs that are too good to leave," Goler and colleagues conclude. "When you have a manager who cares about your happiness and your success, your career and your life, you end up with a better job, and it's hard to imagine working anywhere else" (Goler et. al., Harvard Business Review, 1/11).

    Advisory Board's take

    Craig Pirner

    Craig Pirner, Managing Director, Talent Development

    Managers are often reluctant to have frank conversations with team members about what might lead them to leave—and what would make them stay. Managers fear they'll "plant the seed" in a staff member's mind, they struggle to find the time to speak one-on-one with staff (especially in health care, where spans of control—the number of people who report to a given supervisor—are so high), and they sometimes doubt that there's much they can do to change how a staff member feels about their job.

    But it's critical to have the conversation, because the first step to creating a job around top performers is understanding what is most important to them. That's why it can be so powerful to have a "stay interview," a conversation where managers explore what would lead someone to stay in their job. In these conversations, it is important for managers to suspend their assumptions and listen for staff members' real preferences. This will help managers avoid inadvertently projecting their own preferences onto team members—or giving too much weight to something already known about staff members. (For example: just because someone volunteers to organize the holiday party every year does not mean their dream job involves significant event planning). It's also important for "stay interviews" to happen throughout the employment life cycle, not just in the first year.

    For health care managers with large spans of control, we do not recommend trying to conduct a stay interview with every team member. Instead, focus on the small handful of employees who are "keystone" staff members—the people whose departure would have an outsized impact on the team. Common "keystone" employees are top performers, staff with high influence, key relationship owners, and future leaders.

    Ready to have a stay interview? Download this list of questions to pick from.

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    Next, read our how-to guides for being a better manager

    You can't succeed without a qualified and motivated staff. Download our "Manager's Guide" series to learn best practices for conducting interviews, onboarding new hires, and conducting performance reviews.

  • The Manager's Guide to Engaging Staff
  • The Manager's Guide to Behavioral-Based Interviewing
  • The Manager's Guide to New Hire Onboarding
  • The Manager's Guide to Accurate Evaluations
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