Life-work balance strategies needed to retain top talent

Last year, a new agency was launched, and the e-mail announcement included a list of principles that the firm would live by.

Last year, a new agency was launched, and the e-mail announcement included a list of principles that the firm would live by.

I'm paraphrasing here, but the number one article of faith listed was, in essence, "Personal life comes first, always." Clearly this promo was designed to entice industry leaders to join the firm, but it is laughable to imagine it - or any company - surviving if that code was embraced literally by the entire staff.

Still, the message we hear through this and other endeavors is that more professionals are seeking a better work-life balance than what many firms offer. "Best place to work" surveys are among the most competitive in the industry, particularly as the need for top talent continues to increase while supplies lag.

Other surveys, however, reflect what clients are seeking and are equally important. Our Agency Excellence Survey, results of which will appear in next week's issue, points up the importance to clients that senior practitioners are actively engaged on their accounts.

Couple that fact with what we know about the difficulties in finding, recruiting, and retaining mid-level staff, who will grow to the senior ranks and do a lot of the work maintaining the high-level service on existing business, and it is clear PR has a problem.

Too many people whom the PR industry needs to hang on to find a way out of the profession, particularly parents, and perhaps even more specifically, mothers. Weber Shandwick's Gail Heimann, who is co-president of the consumer practice and president of the New York office, says the agency is looking at ways to address how to balance life needs and keeping talent on the management track.

The PR profession has had programs like telecommuting and reduced work schedules in place for years. But while incentives might be there, the agency culture might not be geared to turning the challenge into positive opportunities to keep great people engaged in career progression.

"The challenge we have today, as an industry, is to retain our sensitivity to the needs of new parents," Heimann says via e-mail, "and transform the nasty specter of 'mommy tracking' into something with a positive end-game."

Part of the trick is identifying those who will enrich the management ranks down the line. As Heimann notes, companies that fail to take a long-term view of these performers will eventually lose them, regardless of whether they take time out of the workplace.

It is still the case that parental flexibility is most often an issue for women in the workplace, and there are those who say: "Why worry about keeping women in PR? What we need is more men!" The fact remains that the most senior ranks of the largest firms are still male-dominated, but that is not the only critical point here. It is not a matter of gender, but of excellence. Heimann and others like her are thinking of strategies for ensuring they hang on to stars, and trying to find ways to bring the agency's needs and the individual's needs closer together.

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