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The power within: 5 practical ways to unleash your staff’s true potential before they leave…

Shifting focus from preventing turnover to inspiring out full potential

As leaders we’ve all had nagging nightmares about losing our top people – whether it’s HR execs ritualistically reviewing voluntary exit data, CEOs hearing rumor that their VP of engineering is “looking”, or mid-level managers stressing about a sudden lack of engagement from their resident rockstar.

But what if the focus shifted from getting people to stay at all costs, to inspiring them to realize every ounce of their potential while you have them?

After all, you may have lost many of your folks to “cognitive attrition” (losing their mindshare) well before the grim reaper of standard “butt-in-seat” attrition rears its head.

The truth is that both are important, but cognitive attrition and its prevention is an underserved market; leaders are not doing enough to inspire out the full potential of their employees.

This is even more important in today’s fluid economy, where new skills can be learned in months, expertise is being commoditized and movement is expected. Leaders in this climate must continually inspire and engage the folks they have on their staff. Get that right and standard attrition numbers will work themselves out.

1) Deliver LESS solutions, MORE platforms

One of the most common tendencies of a leader is to try too quickly to jump into problem-solving mode. After all, problem-solving is a great skill and often times got the leader where they are.

That being said, to truly empower employees you shouldn’t give them fish or even stop at teaching them to fish. There should also be opportunities where you only provide the tools or the opportunity and none of the answers. You’ll find that creating platforms for employees to establish cohorts, teams and networks is an amazing way to unleash raw potential and build cultural identity.

One way to do this is by encouraging side projects that engage employees and benefit the company as a whole. Microsoft’s Garage project is a great example of this concept which has been popularized by many companies particularly in the technology sector.

2) Shut up and listen 

Whether by “listening tours”, any-hands meetings, using employee feedback tools, or simply by holding occasional 1:1 meetings with all levels of your organization, senior leaders need to carve out time to get out there and listen.

One effective way to start this is to dedicate 4 hours a month to proactive listening activities like the ones mentioned above. “Let listening be your calling card” as prescribed in the Forbes contribution: “Why most leaders need to shut up and listen”.

3) Champion flexible benefits and rewards

To reach the top of the pyramid in Mazlo’s Hierarchy employees first must have their basic needs taken care of. Benefits and rewards – both informal and formal – can of course help with that.

With today’s workforce being more diverse than ever it is also important these benefits and rewards are flexible and not one-size-fits-all.

One great example is around life-stage diversity (not to be confused with generational diversity); as employees grow and their life-stage changes (have kids, save for retirement – whatever it may be) their needs change. For example, a new father may want to roll his holiday vacation time into additional paternity leave, or a new college-hire may want to take compensation cuts in return for more vacation time to travel the world.

By having a flexible benefits structure employees can use their benefits in different ways based on life-stage and not have to deal with the stress of not knowing if their benefits and rewards will always fit their needs adequately. That stress will inevitably lead to cognitive attrition and disengagement.

4) Lead, don’t manage

True leaders don’t claim to have all the answers, managers do.

To quote retired three-star U.S. Marine Corps General Paul Van Riper, the key to leadership is to be “in command… out of control”. Leaders must set a commanding vision but shouldn’t obsess over control.

To truly get the most out of your team, you should lead with vision but also empower your team to build on that vision. In contrast simply managing the team to execute within your parameters will make you the bottle neck and leaves no room for great ideas your employees may have.

Additionally, it is very important for leaders to know their limits and not feel forced to be a visionary when they have no expertise in a particular area. An empowered workforce will help fill these gaps when they arise.


5) Coach and mentor likes it’s your job (hint: it is)

Leaders must experiment with informal programs as well as formal around mentorship. Great new-fangled programs we’re beginning to see are intra-company mentoring, reverse mentoring at companies like Microsoft, Mastercard and Cisco and even “gender gap” mentoring in pockets at Microsoft. All of these mentoring forms take employees out of their standard context and allow them to learn from someone they wouldn’t have interacted with in this capacity by way of their standard routine.

To summarize, today’s leaders have a variety of tools and strategies they can use to ensure each of their employees reach their full potential. Instead of locking the doors so nobody can leave your company, make it so awesomely inspiring inside that nobody wants to!

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