Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Leader's Role in Talent Retention-"We like you. You are doing good. We want you to stay."

Many years ago while still an officer in the US Army I came to know an Army doctor.  This particular doctor was an orthopedic surgeon who was treating a member of my family. He was all the things you would hope for in a physician...skilled, caring, dedicated, and an excellent communicator.

It's important to know that there is a huge differential between the salary a US Army doctor makes compared to his civilian counterparts.  Even with bonuses aimed at retaining critical specialties, an Army salary is a tiny fraction of what a surgeon can make in private practice.  The Army copes with this differential by offering scholarships that pay for medical school in return for some number of years of service, and specialty training in return for even more years service.  In some cases, this can add up to more than a decade of obligated service in exchange for education and training, but eventually the obligation runs out.

The surgeon who was treating my family member had reached the end of his obligated service and had taken the decision to go into private practice.  Because he was so good and we needed good people to stay...and maybe a little selfishly... I wanted him to keep treating us, I asked him "Is there anything anyone could do that would cause you to stay in the Army?"  His response still resonates over thirty years later.

He said, "Not now.  I've agreed to a practice near my original home with arguably the best sports orthopedist in the United States.  Those plans are too far down the road to change now.  But you know what? I would have stayed.  I love soldiers and their families. I like serving. Making a lot of money isn't the most important thing to me.  I would have stayed if someone had just said 'We like you.  You are doing good.  We want you  to stay'....that's all it would have taken...but no one did."

There are a number of different factors in play when it comes to talent retention.  Clearly competitive compensation is part of that.  Sometimes the opportunities for career development are important.  The opportunity to learn and grow in your discipline can also play a role.  These are all structural things that good HR departments and good companies help a leader manage.

In the midst of all those structural solutions, sometimes it's easy to forget the most powerful retention tool is a leader...someone who matters...simply saying "We like you.  You are doing good. We want you to stay."


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