How to Keep Employees from Jumping Ship

September 17th, 2015 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Building Relationships, Change Leadership, Hyper Growth No Comments »

QuitorStayHigh attrition is frustrating, expensive, risky – and 100% curable.

In a recent conversation with one of the panelists for the upcoming MBTI Users Conference, I was reminded of the situation we had faced, the intensity of it, and how dramatically things changed in just a year. It’s a great example of how you don’t have to live with undesirable attrition just because the job market is ferociously competitive.

The client was a new law firm that had exploded onto the scene after stunning their peers with an asbestos litigation settlement that eclipsed those achieved by the largest firms with the most famous lawyers in the country. Almost overnight, the firm quintupled in size, and would go on to double again over the next 18 months. Amidst constant recruiting and hiring for new positions, the managing attorneys and small HR team found themselves constantly seeking replacements for the staff who kept quitting.

Unlike most other types of law, asbestos litigation requires a very large staff with a high level of interdependency. The typical law firm is essentially a cluster of mini-firms, with each attorney having his or her own staff who mostly work with each other instead of across the organization. You can, I’m sure, already see the challenge shaping up: young partners and even younger managing attorneys, with no exposure to – let alone experience in — leading matrixed organizations, suddenly found themselves trying to manage a complex start-up in midst of hyper-growth.

It was the worst of all worlds. Staff attrition was approaching 50% a year. Attorneys with asbestos experience often left in under a year, leaving behind only those with little experience. The partners and attorneys essentially never left the office, which had boxes and boxes of files piled up in every workspace and out into the passageways between the cubes.

Meanwhile, the dot-com boom provided hundreds of nearby companies that offered better salaries and the promise of stock options to any attorney or staff person who could fog a mirror, so the firm was losing lots of people to a different industry.

It was a vicious cycle.

So, what did it take to turn it around and cut unwanted attrition to the low single digits?

1. Shore up the basics.

The first order of business was to find out how the fundamentals compared to the competition. By fundamentals I mean the non-sexy stuff that you don’t read about in engaging Harvard Business Review leadership articles: salary, bonus, benefits, and perks.

Smaller organizations don’t generally have access to reliable comps, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get a reasonable estimate through exit interviews and tapping their networks. Sure, exiting employees will probably exaggerate their new compensation a bit (or a lot), but by using good old common sense, you can get a reasonable ballpark.

In the case of this particular firm, they figured out the approximate mid-point for each job and in most cases this meant giving the employee a raise. This set off a nice morale boost.

They also recognized that their vacation policy was too skimpy, so they bumped it up.

I can’t emphasize enough that if you are in a service business today, you have to keep pace on all of these fundamentals, even if you’re worried about how to pay for it. You don’t have to pay the most, but you have to stay competitive.

2. Develop the dickens out of your managers.

If you remember only one thing, make it this: employees don’t leave companies. They leave bosses. 

This reality makes it much simpler to focus your attention when both time and money are tight. Develop your managers, and leave it to them to develop their people.

For this firm, I conducted a needs assessment. The assessment was thorough but relatively brief. The dynamics of a smaller organization should not take long for a reasonably competent management consultant to interpret and assess. If your firm is small, run away from anyone who says it will take weeks.

Based on the assessment, I worked with the founding partner and the HR team to design and implement leadership development for all of the managing attorneys and functional staff managers. We focused on three areas: understanding the partners’ vision and what it means in terms of your day-to-day choices, how to lead as a team, and what competent leaders do.

Because this was a highly specialized law firm, we collaborated to create this leadership competency model rather than use a commercially available model.

3. Embed feedback everywhere.

We designed feedback into everything in the firm that we could possibly utilize for this purpose. Feedback given, considered, and acted upon ultimately creates a self-improving system.

It extended from a 360-degree feedback process for the partners and managing attorneys to 1:1 coaching and feedback for the partners, to ensuring that thoughtful feedback was a critical part of the HR director’s role.

As the firm was so new, we were able to design a simple performance review process that gave staff their first opportunity to hear well-articulated, more objective feedback and to focus their individual development. Were I working with them on this today, I would simplify it even more, and focus on real-time feedback on an ongoing basis. This willingness to give and receive feedback in real time has proven a game-changer for many of my clients.

4. Restructure and reorganize if it helps the workflow.

One of the things I most enjoyed about working with this firm was that they had no preconceived notions about professional management and leadership. They hadn’t been exposed to anything. So without overthinking it, the partners would restructure and reorganize either because they saw a better way, or because one or more managers came to them with the idea.

By tinkering with and sometimes overhauling the workflow, they were able to drive out a great deal of the inefficiency and errors that employees had found discouraging. As the employees experienced this improvement, they stuck around.

5. Build the culture by acting on your values.

Culture is shaped by behavior and behavior is shaped by values. Employees need to know what you stand for. Interestingly, in part because they had not had exposure to the types of discussions and development that managers in big companies receive, they were in some ways even more clear, and they acted quite decisively.

For example, when an employee behaved in a way that felt harassing and hostile to another employee, the HR director interviewed both parties and others who had been present, and brought the data to the partner. He fired the employee immediately, without notice and without severance pay.

I’m not suggesting that such decisiveness is always the best call (at times, it wasn’t), but his actions made it utterly clear what his values were, and those who agreed with his values decided they wanted to stick around and give him a chance to grow as a manager and a leader.

What have you found to be most essential to keep valued employees from jumping ship? Do you agree, or vehemently disagree with my advice? I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line at

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Five Keys to Managing Hyper-growth

November 13th, 2014 Jennifer Selby Long Posted in Hyper Growth, Management No Comments »

chartI am immersed in a world of hyper-growth. All hyper-growth companies struggle with the unrelenting demands of rapid scale. There is no smooth sailing when your company is doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in size each year.

However, some companies make it through hyper-growth and come out stronger, while others fall apart, unable to cross the chasm of such a massive and rapid change. While each company does have its own unique magic, there are at least five keys to success during the hyper-growth stage.

Stop holding back and start investing.

This is the time to buy or lease systems that do more than you need them to do, because they’ve been designed for the size you’ll be in two or more years. It’s time to take all of that grey-market equipment to the e-cycling bin and replace it with supportable, high quality products. It may seem like over-engineering, but you have to put in place today what you’ll need in the future, not just scramble to keep up with current demands.

And, no surprise coming from me, it’s time to stop throwing people into leadership roles hoping that they’ll just catch on, and instead, start investing in conscious, strategic development of leaders at all levels. Then expect these leaders to focus on developing their teams and supporting the career development of individuals.

All of the hacking, the improvising, the “just figure it out” approach to development, and extreme resourcefulness that made you successful so far will kill you if you try to keep it up as you rapidly scale. You have to make a shift in what you value and reward in order help your hardworking employees ride the tidal wave of hyper-growth.

Hire for the future.

Just building the leaders you already have isn’t enough, though. Successful hyper-growing companies also hire leaders at all levels who’ve already been very successful doing what they do at the scale you expect to reach in the coming years.

Hyper-growth is its own animal. Leaders who have never done it bring a lot of risk to your company. That risk is fine in the founders and employees who’ve brought you this far, and who will continue to add enormous value, but you need to add the experience of people who have led a much bigger team through the unrelenting challenges of hyper-growth.

Headcount is one way to look at it. If your engineering headcount is at 400, for example, look for leaders who’ve successfully grown their collective functions to 1200 or more.

You may be accustomed to valuing people who fit the classic entrepreneurial profile, but once you head toward and beyond four figures in headcount (regardless of valuation), you will need a more diverse and seasoned workforce and leadership.

Be very clear on your values, and task everyone with living the values day-to-day.

Your values drive your culture. Much of your culture can be retained despite the massive level of change you’re going through. Day-to-day processes will change, access to founders and popular leaders will change, level of individual involvement in decisions will change. A whole lot will be different.

However, despite all of this change, if you reward people for living and breathing the values, and hold yourself strictly accountable for doing the same, you will maintain a great deal of the cultural magic unique to your company. Values drive behavior and behavior drives culture. Don’t focus on your culture. Focus on the behaviors that embody your values, and the culture will be maintained without additional special programs or initiatives.

Ultimately, the senior leaders of the company are the only people who can own full responsibility for maintaining the culture. Consultants can all provide guidance on how to maintain it, but the ownership rests with the senior leaders. This includes the founders, but is not limited to them.

Massively ramp up the effort you put into strategic alignment.

It takes exponentially more effort to keep exponentially more people rowing in the same direction. Now is the time to begin a regular discipline of management off-sites to step back and ensure you’re making the same assumptions, planning for the future, working through your conflicts, and going back out to the organization with a shared message.

This is also a perfect time to consider alternate means of establishing multi-directional communication about strategy. For example, should you be crowdsourcing input on the strategy? How will you ensure robust participation from offices around the globe, if you’ve been accustomed to having nearly everyone in one city? I rarely see hyper-growth without simultaneous globalization, and it is too often treated as an afterthought in the strategic alignment process, to the great detriment of the company.

The need for organizational discipline in strategic alignment applies to all levels of management, not just the E-staff. Every team should be examining how closely their mission and strategy align with the vision, mission, and strategy of the company.

Intentionally have fun.

Many leaders find it fun to work, and work, and work. They really, truly do enjoy it. Is this you? If so, you’ll need to make an intentional and regular habit of encouraging fun, which may not feel very natural. Believe it or not, many people would find your unabashed love of work to be a little strange!

People work incredibly hard during hyper-growth, and often sacrifice time with loved ones to build the company that they believe in. Encouraging them to have fun, and being willing to have a little fun yourself, goes a long way toward avoiding the dreaded employee fear that “we’ll go totally corporate.”

Your people understand that without implementing better systems, tools, and processes, they will have chaos. They know that more structure is necessary. However, the implementation of discipline and repeatable processes does not require the implementation of a 24/7 serious face. Show them your humanity by joining them in having a little fun.

So, what constitutes fun? This varies considerably in different industries, countries, age groups, and even between companies that otherwise appear similar. My guidance is to start by asking your best HR business partner (or generalist, if you don’t have HRBP’s) for input and feedback. Contrary to the common stereotype, your best HR people are not trying to squelch all fun and self-expression. That’s what mediocre HR people do. The best HR pros nurture the fun that everyone enjoys, not just a select few, and have an excellent sense of what will work for your organization.

What have you done to manage hyper-growth? Please share your tips with others in the comments below.

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