Listening to staff will help leaders stem a war for talent

When our economy collapsed in 2008, companies cut jobs, froze pay, and eliminated training and development programs.

The year was 1835. Charles Darwin, aboard the S.S. Beagle, witnessed an 8.5-magnitude earthquake that struck the coast of Chile. When he went ashore, Darwin noticed how the region had been forced up, leading the evolutionist to speculate that the Andes Mountains could have been created by a series of quakes. His observation became one of history's most crucial geological insights.

The signs are always there. The trick is observing them and learning what they mean.

In spring 2008, reengineering guru Michael Hammer told us how a major food company was running a global unit with fewer managers - one for every 56 front-line workers. Everything we've learned about organizational effectiveness told us that a front-line manager should optimally oversee no more than 12 employees to facilitate strong engagement and communications.

When our economy collapsed in 2008, companies cut jobs, froze pay, and eliminated training and development programs. They cranked up the overtime, rather than hiring new workers to bolster the sagging energies and morale of those who had wrenched their way through the downturn. And they asked beleaguered managers who had taken on ever-larger numbers of direct reports to press on.

If ever there was a recipe for disaster, you've just tasted it.

Fast forward to February 2010, when the number of employees voluntarily quitting surpassed those being fired for the first time since 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Right Management, a division of employment service company Manpower, reported that 60% of the workers polled in 2009 said they would quit their jobs when the economy improved - an alarming figure.

With the economy improving, our leaders tell us they've been hunkered down, worried about profits and operations, without time for mingling with employees. Only now have they resumed the long march among staff, asking how they feel, what they think, and how conditions can be made better. What they're hearing is, "You're too late" and "Pay me more if you expect me to stay." We should expect attrition to grow dramatically in coming days.

Why do we always return to fight the unnecessary war for talent? Because employees speak, but leaders don't listen. Because we take up management models that force front-line leaders to choose between certain failure or a new employer that values employee engagement. Because companies slash and burn what staff value most - programs designed to manage, retain, develop, and advance high performers. The signs are always there.

Keith Burton is president of Insidedge.

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