Author Dick Finnegan: “Make stories impactful but short”

My books bring hope to subjects for which CEOs and HR executives see as “rush hour traffic”. The subjects are employee retention and employee engagement, and the analogy to rush hour traffic works because we all know we must work around rush hour traffic rather than beat it. Executives must first see the dollar value of losing […]

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My books bring hope to subjects for which CEOs and HR executives see as “rush hour traffic”. The subjects are employee retention and employee engagement, and the analogy to rush hour traffic works because we all know we must work around rush hour traffic rather than beat it. Executives must first see the dollar value of losing employees before they will take on solutions to keep them, again because they have no hope. Then my books lead them toward business-driven solutions to make improvements.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dick Finnegan. Dick is the CEO of C-Suite Analytics, the inventor of Stay Interviews, and the global employee retention expert. Clients have included Bank of America, Caterpillar, Great Dane, the CIA, and others within all major industries. Dick has worked on all inhabited continents including reducing turnover in Siberia and deep into African gold mines, as well as conducting an employee retention series across China.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Sure. I was an HR executive with a large banking company, and my CEO told me employee turnover was high and I needed to fix it. Politely, I explained that HR couldn’t fix turnover, and in fact he had a better chance to fix it than me. Bad move, as he not only disagreed but sought a tactful way to move me out of his office. Having been both an Air Force Lieutenant and a college cheerleader…true story…he got up from behind his desk and approached me. Like a lamb, I didn’t know which personality he would take on. After pausing he said, “I know you can do this. In fact, your middle name is now…” pause…pause…pause… “TURNOVER! You are Richard T. Finnegan!”

Beyond changing my name, the most remarkable part was the accompanying gesture, as he spun his arm around in a big circle from his shoulder, all while announcing my name change.

You could say I felt violated. As I left his office and sorted out my feelings, one surpassed all. Who would I tell this story to first?

Two days later I had lunch with the COO who managed all the branches, and we decided then to meet with all managers in groups and tell them they now had employee retention goals, that from that point forward they would be held accountable for their talent. Four months later turnover was down 19% and we had saved over $4MM. I knew then that the secret to employee retention was manager accountability…and that led to my entrepreneurial career and book-writing success.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I’ve helped organizations cut turnover and keep their workers in many cultures and on all inhabited continents including Siberia, African gold mines, across China, and for the CIA. In every location the companies’ initial approach was identical…learn what employees want from surveys and then present a solution as a one-size-fits-all program. Whether Chicago or Shanghai, organizations learn for example that employees want more recognition so they implement employee-of-the-month, employee-of-the-year, employee appreciation week, and service anniversary gifts like a backpack at five years and a company clock at 10 years. They fail to see that the number one reason employees stay or leave, or for that matter engage or disengage, is how much they trust their supervisors. So all of the giveaways and what my company calls “events with food” have little bearing on engagement and retention.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In Africa I willingly rode an open elevator 3 kilometers to deep earth to study why workers stayed and left. All was fine until I was asked to crawl into a small space to watch them work, with only the light from our helmets. As nerve-wracking as that was, other employees were dynamiting nearby. I never understood claustrophobia until that day. The lesson I learned was not every culture is as protective as ours so take nothing for granted…and decide accordingly.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Every new client is exciting because they can’t conceive of how we will help them cut employee turnover, nor can they envision how much more productive their company will be once we complete our work. Words like “company” and “organization” make these locations seem faceless, whereas we develop very close professional relationships with our clients that remain intact way beyond the project. One recentconferencepresentation led to our cutting turnover by55% for United Facilities’ forklift drivers, along with 41% in manufacturing and 35% for nurses in a major Midwest hospital.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I did many weeks of research before starting my first book, which might be another way to say I dragged my feet before I entered a word on a page. And I remember those first words as though those sentences would be entered into a historic time capsule. A few pages later I began to understand the concept of “finding your voice.” We authors probably all think we have a unique writing style…I know I think that…and it took a jolt of confidence for me to write what transferred from my mind to my fingers, rather than consider the academic ways most non-fiction authors write. Now I embrace that style, though certainly selling thousands of books has helped me establish that level of confidence.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Here’s a true example of learning through role plays that we do in our Stay Interview Training. We helped to implement Stay Interviews at Florida Hospital Flagler, and during the training the food services manager volunteered to play herself as the employee in the role play. When asked what her manager could do to make her work life better, the food services manager said she wanted to learn more about computers and also about international foods. We paused the role play and asked all of the managers in the room for ideas for helping this employee enjoy her work more. Here’s how the dialogue unfolded:

  • The first manager to speak said she would show the food services manager how to locate international food sites on her computer;
  • The second manager said she would teach her to set up these sites as “favorites” so they were easily available to her;
  • Then another manager said she would go to a book store and search out a food magazine with international recipes and buy it for her;
  • This triggered another manager to say “If you are buying her a magazine, why not get her a subscription? They’re pretty cheap.”

The HR director concluded the idea-generating by saying, “Ask her to have international foods day once each month in the hospital cafeteria and then we’ll all enjoy her work!”

This role play was about a real employee expressing ways she could become better engaged and retained. The group-solution exercise became an impromptu example of crowdsourcing as all pitched in with good ideas that without question furthered the food services manager deepening her engagement and loyalty in real life.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

My books bring hope to subjects for which CEOs and HR executives see as rush hour traffic. The subjects are employee retention and employee engagement, and the analogy to rush hour traffic works because we all know we must work around rush hour traffic rather than beat it. Executives must first see the dollar value of losing employees before they will take on solutions to keep them, again because they have no hope. Then my books lead them toward business-driven solutions to make improvements.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

I was initially approached by a publisher rep who had heard me deliver a keynote speech. She invited me to apply to write a book for them, and the application required my submitting a 5,000-word piece. Weeks later when my application had been approved she told me I “had 75,000 words to go.” After a several-day period of intimidation, I recalled that my alma mater, Penn State, had the best Industrial Psychology graduate department in the United States, so I sought out a professor who could help me there. Ultimately a professor named Murphy took a call from this guy named Finnegan…might have been St. Patrick’s Day…and we formed a bond whereby I asked Murphy to help me become the most knowledgeable person on earth regarding fixing employee turnover. And he did, after months of my reading books, articles, and research dissertations on my subject.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

My inspiration comes from the many books and articles I read about retaining and engaging employees that are way off base. Not only do they lack data, but the prevailing opinion for decades has been to give employees one-size-fits-all programs based on the outcomes of engagement or exit surveys. Why does turnover continue to rise while Gallup tells us engagement has not improved this century? The answer is clear but obscured by these publications. The number one reason employees stay or leave, or engage or disengage, is how much they trust their immediate supervisors. No new program like pet insurance, nor any event with food, will make employees trust their supervisors more.

How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?

The easy measure is the amount and frequency of feedback I get from all corners of our world. Weekly emails and LinkedIn invitations from Africa, India, Asia, and South America keep me on my toes, reminding me that my words impact thousands of people with whom I’ll never have another conversation except for the words I put into print.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?

Find your unique opinions that align with your passions…and then go for it. Don’t procrastinate hitting those keys. And study and collect every other piece on your subject. The internet has made research easy.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Write authoritatively when you feel it

2. Write what you know about your subject, and don’t feel like you have to know everything

3. Make stories impactful but short, or smart readers will move on from your work

4. Find experts and ask questions; people are more available than you think

5. Enjoy knowing you have a massive impact on others; it’s an important and great feeling

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That everyday people like you and me formed a lobby, call it the Peoples’ Lobby, so we could overcome the massive dollars that are contributed by the long-established lobbies for guns, healthcare, financial services, and other industries. That way the desires of our nation’s people would come first versus the industries that fund our politicians.

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