I've been developing a series of writing focused on optimizing our environments for high-performance employees (HPEs). I started this process to validate long-held assumptions based on my experience working with many technical and creative folks. My natural affinity for builders and creatives runs deep. I find them to be the most interesting, quirky, sincere and inspirational folks around. A natural extension from this affinity has been working to design the most efficient and ethical people systems for HPEs.
My first article in the series addresses what I consider to be a special persona in our technical and creative environments, the high-performance employee (HPE). The HPE has unique needs and is largely misunderstood by executives at many companies. This common disconnect between executives and HPEs manifests in things like corporate culture, process design, space design, expectation management and much more.
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When we talk about culture, process, space and understanding, we're really talking about key drivers for the holistic well-being of employees. From a corporate perspective, we're talking about sustainable innovation, productivity and retention — with retention being the easiest to assess, and an obvious indicator of organizational cancer or misdirection.
My latest anonymous survey* data shows that 68 percent of high-performance employees are contacted about new job opportunities at least once per month — with 24 percent contacted every week. These numbers are alarming. We already know employee turnover is concerning at our tech and creative companies, with one-year tenure seeming like the going average. How are companies even treading water?
(*Over 3,000 respondents from industries like Software, IT, Hardware, Financial Services, Creative, Marketing, Automotive, Architecture and Manufacturing.)
Let's consider these 68/24 percent numbers by way of the following:
Natural competition is a huge issue for HPE retention and surely one of the primary drivers for frequent job offers. Business and recruiting competition have rendered the technical and creative markets a scary place for the last decade, and it seems to be getting worse.
The intensity of competition and micro-innovation in more granular industry segments is just getting started. Perhaps unfortunate for your company, this means there is just a bunch of really interesting and cutting-edge stuff going on out there — apart from what you're working on. The innovation trend also amplifies lateral and upward recruiting pressure on organizations.
As competition intensifies, salaries are also inching higher — with junior technical employees demanding pay that does not reflect experience. This trend stresses employee development potential at large organizations.
Sadly, the combination of the above factors only serves to provoke each one.
In light of the scary 68/24 percent numbers above, I would argue that a compelling reason the wheels haven't flown completely off our industries would be the natural tendency toward sincerity — both on behalf of executives and HPEs alike.
Executives naturally want to improve their companies. HPEs naturally want to do the best job they can according to the purity of their craft and to deliver according to company goals.
Regardless of ability to do so, everyone wants to make their organization better. Life is a mysterious ball of wax, with most folks doing the absolute best job they can — at home and at work. Everyone is trying hard, working at it, learning every day.
However, in the case of things like retention and organizational culture change, all the good intentions in the land will not have the desired outcome if we continue to implement policy and system design with the wrong foundational assumptions about our people.
The Burden Of Recruiting
Recruiting is a tough, thankless job. There is no doubt that many recruiters come across as annoying, persistent trolls. That being said, there are many fantastic recruiters who understand relationship management and always act with the best interest of employees.
As executives and management, these are the recruiters we need to fear. These recruiters have open lines to some of the most talented folks in every industry. They are the first to know when our employee morale is low or our culture suppresses the quest for mastery and excellence.
As previously mentioned, one of the biggest drivers of poor retention is a natural disconnect between executives and HPEs. With our talented employees fielding new opportunities at least every month, the way to protect the tenure of our people is through principled understanding and early proactive change. We need to take this concept much more seriously. Understanding and change only come by way of humility and hard work on our internal policies, moral foundation and system design. Most companies are simply not working hard enough toward cultural change.
Perhaps we can look to Uber and Amazon as examples of environments that need some help optimizing for the holistic health of its HPEs; this could be showing with what might be the shortest employee retention numbers in the industry. There are always two sides to every story, and corporate culture is a mysterious sort — but it seems where there is smoke, there is also fire.
Underfunded & Misdirected Cultural Change
Cultural debt, process and morale problems are like disease. A condition that takes two years to develop could take even longer to correct.
Cultural change is not nearly as simple as a new HR director or VP Engineering — change needs to happen all the way up to the founder/exec level and filter down. When executives fail to understand the unique principles of our HPEs it makes the battle for innovation and happy people much more difficult. Furthermore, it encourages our best people to engage in the next potential employment conversation.
Almost all medium-sized companies have internal initiatives targeting employee morale, fulfillment and retention. Yet how many of these companies are really dedicated to this at the core? How many believe that the investment in truly optimized high-performance people systems is the key to sustainable innovation and success?
On paper, 100% to be sure. In reality, I suspect not many, as their policies fail to resonate deeply with their most critical people, the HPEs. Board pressure, top/bottom line revenues, or shortsighted/toxic personnel consistently tip the scales in the wrong direction.
Cultural change is hard. It might take an organization 5 to 10 times the amount of effort and resources they planned for in order to manifest meaningful change. That's a scary thought, yet reality. If our culture is headed in the wrong direction, the time to start with organizational change is now — with a great persistence, intensity and resource allocation.
Don't Worry, Be Happy
We are constantly surrounded by 1,001 reasons to be stressed, worried, defensive or aggressive in the workplace. With survey numbers like what I've published here, I've given you one more shadowy foe to worry about. Yet, hopefully through my HPE series I've encouraged you to think a bit differently about some of our workplace problems. Instead of focusing on the numbers, focus on our high-performance people.
Making money is obviously the goal of our businesses, but by targeting the quick fix or the fast buck, we could be jeopardizing the long-term wellness of our people, their retention capacity, and the innovation potential of our companies. Our people are the most important. Sometimes we just need to sit down and listen, to learn about their principles and values as future masters. If we strive for happy and empowered people who are supported to pursue the mastery of their craft, we can achieve anything together.
William Belk is a partner at Formula Partners. You can contact him on Twitter.