When Talent Can Easily Find New Opportunity, How Do You Retain Talent?

Talent moves around more and more

Talent in Companies

There used to be a long-term economic and psychological pact between employee and employer that guaranteed lifetime employment in exchange for lifelong loyalty; this pact has been replaced by a performance-based, short-term contract that’s perpetually up for renewal by both sides.

As an individual professional, you aren’t wild about pledging lifelong loyalty to a single company because, thanks to LinkedIn and other services, you can more easily locate new opportunities and you can more easily be found by recruiters and companies. The grass is always greener on the other side; now it’s easier than ever to see that grass, and chase it. Companies, as a result, don’t want to invest in training and developing you in part because you’re not likely to commit years and years of your life to working there — you will have many different jobs in your lifetime.

In the Start-Up of You, we talk about how individual professionals should manage and invest in themselves in light of this more fluid relationship with employers.

But how should companies think about the implications of these expectations? How do companies think about HR and retention? If individuals live the Start-Up of You, it means that if you have 500 employees you do not have 500 individuals ready to be subservient and loyal for life; rather, you have 500 businesses-of-one who are leasing their talent to you at this point in time.

Instead of denying the job-hopping, opportunity-seeking ways of young talent today, it seems wiser for companies to face the reality and embrace it. Help employees develop transferrable skills. Help them build the start-up of themselves. And be very explicit with new hires about the expectations: “We expect you to give us a really strong tour of duty for 2-3 years. When you leave, we expect you to be part of our corporate alumni group. We want you to be part of our corporate alumni network. We want you to help recruit new employees. We want you to be lifelong ambassadors and evangelists for our products and services. But we know you’re super talented and will come upon many other career opportunities while you work here. We know your tenure at the company may not last more than a few years.”

Essentially, try to retain employees for as long as possible, but be frank about their likely brief tour of duty, and be clear that you expect them to be active corporate alumni members for the years after they leave the company.

Talent in Countries

Elites of troubled or poor countries ask themselves: “How we keep our brightest young here? How do we get them to build companies here, be part of the local workforce, and (re)build the local economy?” In Greece, this was the question elites in the country were thinking about. I just returned from a few days in Morocco–it was a huge topic of conversation there, too.

Usually, elder elites appeal to youth’s sense of nationalism / patriotism: “You’re Cypriot. This country raised you. Stay and help grow your country.” Or, as I suggested to some Greek entrepreneurs during my trip there, governments could appeal to the business opportunities associated with societal problems–many problems means there are many potential solutions. Trash collection has become impossible in Athens due to protests; perhaps the wealthy would pay for a private trash collection service?

But if they’re honest, older government officials and businesspeople know that for the average 18, 19, 20 year-old in Cyprus or Morocco there will, on average, be more professional opportunities abroad. Government officials fear that if they acknowledge this fact publicly, talented youth will flee. The problem is, they’re going to flee anyway, or at least try to, because they see the economic dynamism abroad. They watch MTV Cribs.

So here’s a radical view: government and business elites in certain poor/developing/troubled countries should explicitly tell their most talented youth to go abroad. Indeed, help them to do this–pay for it, even. As part of this, forge with them a new social contract. Have them sign a document stating their expectation to return after 5-10 years. When they return, they can share what they’ve learned abroad and infuse their native culture with the attitudes gleaned from the cultures in which they spent their 20’s. Plus, chances are they’ll be even more patriotic upon return. Spending time abroad can remind you how Moroccan, or American, or Greek you really are. You realize how many of your habits are cultural; you feel more affinity for your native culture.

The big difference, of course, between the company example and the country example I’ve mentioned is that once an employee leaves a company, he isn’t likely to return again later, whereas for countries, the point is the emigrant will one day return. But maybe this could be made parallel as well. Bain & Co. and McKinsey famously invite ex-employees back after they’ve gained additional experiences elsewhere.

Bottom Line: Talent seeks opportunity. With opportunity increasingly visible and accessible, talent is moving around more and more. Poor countries should relinquish the idea that they can hold onto all their best young people; instead, send a high profile number of them abroad, and get them to commit to return home later. Company executives, similarly, should relinquish the idea that employees will profess long-term loyalty to their corporation. Instead, they should be explicit with employees about signing up for a tour of duty for a period of time and, from then on, remaining an active ambassador and recruiter for the company as part of the corporate alumni group.

6 Responses to When Talent Can Easily Find New Opportunity, How Do You Retain Talent?

  1. bex says:

    Vietnam has a similar agreement – the government pays for many students educations overseas on the agreement that they return and work in Vietnam (for the government) for 8-10 years. It works for the individual (free education and travel etc), however as they know they’re working for the government, they may have to spend 8-10 years to some menial work.

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    For both companies and countries, the obvious answer seems to be, try to be a great place to work/live. You’re right that relying on loyalty/patriotism is a losing strategy at this point, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on retaining our people/citizens.

    If you’re a great place to work, you can retain employees for the long term, just as states that are great places to live can win the immigration game. There’s a reason that in the United States, the Sun Belt has grown as the Rust Belt has declined.

  3. The premise of considering organizational talent (people by any other name) as ” business(es) of one, leasing talent to an organization” is a mind set that fits very well with the current realities job market realities and generational aspirations/expectatios.
    A key question to consider is how this orientation jives with organizational needs for development and internal progression recognizing the demographic realities of workforce supply and demand.
    Call it Talent Stewardship if you like but organizations need to invest in developing their people internally for leadership and continuity needs.
    Where the “leasing model” and “talent stewardship” priority overlap and support each other is in the whole realm of Employee Engagement ! If organizations are communicating, providing development, stimulating and meaningful work why would anyone want to “terminate their lease”.
    Investing in an engaged workforce meets the needs of both the “leasee” and “leasor”.

  4. Jim the Engineer says:

    I agree whole-heartedly with the commenters that are promoting employee engagement. Employers should now be assuming employees, especially those at entry-level, won’t be staying for the long haul. For employers, I think it’s presumptuous to assume that alumni will effectively become their talent scouts – the question they should ask themselves is what will alumni think, say, post, etc, after they’ve tried the greener pastures? Will it be “wow, I really had it pretty good back at company XYZ,” or will it be “thank God I got out of that sweatshop when I did?”

  5. Robert Nolan says:

    I’m sorry but I just have to take exception with some of your statements – guess it’s just the old man in me.
    In your opening paragraph you refer to a lifetime of guaranteed employment for the exchange of lifelong loyalty. When I started in the workforce in 1970 no one ever said to me – if you pledge a lifetime of loyalty, we’ll guarantee a lifetime of employment. However a company decided to give me a chance in a sales territory and they always appreciated my attempts at meeting quota – which I was fortunate to meet. If there was a time when I or my fellow sales friends did not meet quota we were not fired on the spot, we did not have a short term contract that was always up for renewal. However, we knew we had to perform and that meant always doing our best – it usually resulted in achieving goals which would then result in keeping our jobs.
    I would not be able to comprehend a situation where I could see myself going into a company and expecting them to train me, treat me special, cater to all my needs, after all I’m only going to be with you a short time. Rubbish!

    “As an individual professional, you aren’t wild about pledging lifelong loyalty to a single company because, thanks to LinkedIn and other services ……” – What a crock of …..

    Please tell me how you define “professional”? How long has one worked in a particular field in order to have achieved that standing? Or is it that because one grew up not having to compete to play on a team but “deserved” to be on one because “everyone” deserved to play?
    You mention the grass is always greener on the other side! Really, how many times have you had to go out looking for those greener pastures? To even consider that as a theory is ridiculous – it has no verifiable facts that could support it. If it’s so easy to see the green grass why are so many people looking for work? Do you think there’s a possibility that older generations are not interested in hiring someone who walks in with an attitude that say’s – cater to me I’m a professional – if you don’t someone else will do back flips to get me on board with their company. Again how’s that working out in today’s business?

    Subservient; slaves were freed a long time ago and unless you are using it just sell more books it’s really a bad choice of words, at least in my opinion. You infer that instead of being individuals we are businesses, cute statement but lacks credibility and proof. Leasing their “talent”, what talent is that exactly? How long have you been developing this great talent?
    Embrace the job-hopping, right. It’s what every CEO of a company should do every morning as soon as they wake up – give thanks that I have the ability to embrace these wonderful, talented professionals who I promise to train so they can take off to those greener pastures. Oh and before I have my morning coffee please let me remember to help them develop transferrable skill sets, then start a business that will compete with me and don’t let me forget to send them invitations to our corporate alumni meetings.

    I will agree with one statement you made; “We know your tenure at the company may not last more than a few years”. Actually, I think it would be more likely they never got the job to begin with.
    Sorry this turned in to a rant, it was not meant to be but the more I read the more I find myself saddened by the thoughts you pointed out. I appreciate the fact that things change and that is a good thing – I’m just worried about how those who might live in the Start-Up – of You, and what will their children do when it comes to their future?

  6. Elaine says:

    @Robert – Yikes. The day we stop seeing the need to adapt to our changing world is the day we become old.

    @bex –
    Agreed, but I have known many people from fairly-developed countries in programs like that, but few who went back after time in America. People who were sponsored to come and study, and would rather break contract and accept $150k debt, than go back to their home countries. The problem with the countries is not that they don’t try to bring back top talent. It’s that the opportunities are not there, and the system is inflexible. The 8-10 years of menial work even with “lifetime employment” is a prison sentence to top talent. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, America reaps the reward.

    As GenYer, I’ve clawed and fought my way into professional jobs, so you’re right, I will not stay at a job that treats me poorly and has little growth. They can get any average candidate off the street, I’m better than that and I expect to be treated that way.

    The primary thing the article overlooks is that GenY really does want and value job security. This is not a generation that has ever encouraged to take risks. They want the clear, well-defined path. Instead, we’ve witnessed our parents being laid off at 50 and struggled to get ANY job after graduating college. The most talented job hopped, but often out of necessity, when switching jobs was the safeR choice.

    You really want to keep top talent? Give us good working conditions and security we can wrap yourselves in like a blanket. Simple flex time goes a long way. Mentoring programs, a system in place for clear career advancement, no internet restrictions. The ideas mentioned in the article are overly optomistic and shows a clear lack-of-understanding. GenY just wants to facebook at work and hates the 9-5 constraints. It’s not because we are lazy, but it’s illogical to us in the internet age to work like that. Make GenY feel safe and secure while providing favorable working conditions? We’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.

    The corporate alumni thing seems a little stupid. I wouldn’t want to burn any bridges or lose contacts, but I would be pretty miffed if a company said “we know you’re going to leave in a few years.” That’s the day I would stay looking for a new job. I would much rather invest my career in one company and have promotion and advancement through that company. But if job hopping is the only way I can advance my career? So be it.

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