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Caela Farren, Ph.D. is President of MasteryWorks - a leading Career Development solution to large to mid-size companies, including Sprint, Lockheed-Martin, and Capitol One. MasteryWorks provides enterprise web portals, training, consulting, and an assessment framework for employees and managers. For more than 30 years, Caela has been a tireless advocate around complex issues redefining the workplace. She envisioned the current workplace climate by more than a decade, when she published the book, “Who is Running Your Career: Creating Stable Work in Unstable Times” (Bard Press, 1997). Through MasteryWorks, she oversees solutions that create the foundation for impact-filled “career conversations” - centered on increased contribution, performance, and fit. Her strategic approach consistently delivers on employee engagement and retention goals for her clients.
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Retain Your Strategic Talent in the Coming Recovery
by Caela Farren, Ph.D., MasteryWorks, Inc.


Leaders must care for the workforce needed for future organization strategies.

How do you keep strategic talent from leaving in the coming recovery?
How can you keep your organization competitive, innovative and successful?

    While the economy is not going to turn around overnight, sooner or later it will shift back into higher gear. And when it does, employers are apt to find their skilled talent walking out the door.

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, despite the global recession and rapidly rising unemployment levels, employers are already facing a scarcity of skilled talent. Consider this surprising statistic: In the midst of the worst recession in a generation or more, with 13 million people unemployed, there are approximately 3 million jobs that employers are actively recruiting for but so far have been unable to fill. That's more job openings than the entire population of Mississippi. (Business Week, “Help Wanted: Why That Sign's Bad” 4/30/09).

    As part of its May 2009 survey, Managing Talent in a Turbulent Economy, Deloitte shined a spotlight on talent retention. They found that in looking ahead to the end of the current recession, 52% of 319 executives surveyed worldwide predict an increase in voluntary turnover at their companies, while just 13% predict a decrease. Executives were most concerned about losing “high-potential talent and leadership” and “critical talent.” Specifically, 65% of executives report they have a “high” or “very high” concern about retaining high-potential talent and leadership in the year after the recession ends, and an identical number are either” highly” or “very highly” concerned about losing critical talent.

©2009 MasteryWorks, Inc.

    These studies are a clear indication that once the economy starts to rebound, employers will find it even harder to recruit and retain the skilled talent they need. We are already seeing employees starting to question commitment to their current employer. In April 2009, Hewitt Associates surveyed HR executives at 518 U.S.-base companies and found that 47% believe that employee trust has declined as a result of the way their company has managed its recession-induced cost reductions; 37% feel that their organization’s handling of the economic downtown will make talented employees “much more” or “somewhat more” likely to leave.

    So what do these findings mean? Employees have held tight during tough times and have taken on additional work to support cost cutting measures. They’re stressed about keeping their jobs, holding onto their house, saving for parents, children's education, retirement etc. Cautious of the evolving landscape, they’re taking a deep breath and looking closely at their current work situation. They're asking themselves: Is this really where I want to work? Do I ever want to go through this again?

    For an alarming number of workers, the answer to these questions is “no.”

The Disquieting    
    These questions aren’t pie-in-the-sky academic issues for a theoretical what if discussion. The statistics tell the disquieting changes in workers’ attitudes.

    For example in 2006, the Towers Perrin Global Engagement Study of 86,000 employees revealed that, while 58% were keeping options open, only 15% of workers surveyed were actually looking to change jobs. This small number actually improved more than a year later in November of 2007 when the Gallop organization, which also gathers and tracks engagement and retention information, reported 46% of workers surveyed were completely satisfied with their jobs, 48% were somewhat satisfied, and just 6% were dissatisfied.

    As the recession began to run full tilt in early 2009, things changed.

  • In July, 2009 a Chartered Institute of Personnel Development in the UK survey of 3,000 employees suggested that 33% of workers wanted to change jobs and careers after the recession was over, with those in the banking, finance and construction sectors most likely to jump ship.
  • Adecco Group’s latest Workplace Insights Survey confirmed that that 54% of employed Americans plan to look for a new job once the economy rebounds. The sentiment is even stronger among younger workers with nearly 75% of those between ages 18 and 29 reported likely to look for new jobs once the economy turns around.
  • In May, 2009 Robert Half International and CareerBuilder surveyed more than 500 full-time employees and found that 55% plan to make a career change, seek out new employers or go back to school once the economy recovery is underway.

    Where will you be when the economy improves? Will your organization have retained the best talent to compete in the better economy or will you be sitting in a conference room with disgruntled leftovers with lack-luster talent?
Start Having Career Conversations Now    
    In a company press release, Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder talked recently about how best to retain the 55% of workers who plan to leave their jobs when the economy picks up. As he states, “In addition to competitive pay and benefits, showing a commitment investment in the professional development of employees will play a key part in retaining critical talent.

    I could not agree more. There’s no doubt that skilled workforce segments are likely to walk out the door for better opportunities. And while a certain level of voluntary turnover is expected, organizations need to take steps now to retain their skilled talent. And the first step? Engaging in meaningful, honest, and proactive career conversations.

    To drive retention and have employees and managers who are meaningfully engaged, leaders need to initiate honest and ongoing career conversations with them -- now! The sooner leaders begin a meaningful dialogue with employees and managers, the more effective they will be at retaining the skilled talent they need for the future.

    This starts with taking the time to ask the right questions. Focusing on a few carefully crafted questions will generate a wealth of valuable information upon which to build career conversations with employees and managers. The answers will provide meaningful material for conversations about how employees and managers view their job, see their futures, and see their careers. Questions to explore include:

  • How do they view their Managers?
  • How do they fit the organization's vision and values?
  • What are their aspirations?
  • What would they like and need to learn?
  • What do they want to contribute to the organization in the future?
  • How do they see their working environment?
  • How would they describe their confidence in their leaders?

    Leaders must know their managers and managers should know each direct report and what motivates them.  By listening carefully to the answers to these questions, you’ll have a clearer understanding of how they see their relationship with the organization and what will motivate them to stay.

    After all, to retain skilled employees and managers, you need to give them more reasons to stay than to leave.  You need to tell them that you have seen their hard work and contributions over the past few months. They need to feel appreciated and valued throughout the organization. By engaging in face-to-face career development conversations, you can make sure employees and managers have a roadmap to the future and see how their contributions directly help the organization achieve its goals.

Need to take a look inward as well
    There are also several questions leaders need to ask themselves about their organizations to get a better look at what they’re doing now --- and therefore what they need to do better in the future ---- to engage and hang onto their talent.  By answering “yes” or “no” for each question you’ll see quickly how you stack up:

American industry has responded to the failing economy through massive numbers of layoffs and disappearing jobs. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do you offer competitive salaries and benefits packages with flexible hours? YES NO
2. Are you providing training sessions, presentations, and mentoring opportunities? YES NO
3. Are you giving frequent feedback, especially to your young workers? YES NO
4. Have you created an innovative work environment? YES NO
5. Have you identified and put the special talents of each
individual to the best use?
6. Have you offered your employees a balanced work and life environment? YES NO
7. Do you solicit employees’ opinions affecting their jobs
and the company?
8. Do you recognize and reward excellent performance? YES NO
9. Do you provide cross-training and career progression
10. Do you provide career and personal growth training and
11. Do you communicate organization goals, roles and responsibilities? YES NO
12. Do employees know what you expect from them? YES NO

    Short of gathering up your strategic talent, locking them in a room, and throwing away the key, you are well advised to focus on boosting employee engagement now in order to retain their services before the economy recovers, expands the job market and creates more attractive employment opportunities elsewhere. Economic recovery is not going to happen overnight. But when the turnaround comes, many companies will find it challenging to retain their top performers. Leaders need to be looking carefully at the workforce needed for future organization strategies. You need to have conversations now with those people essential for future success. Let them know that you care, that you see how they pitched in and what they’ve done during the past few months to help the organization. Discuss how best to keep them meaningfully engaged.

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