The Malaise Of Attrition

Talent Attrition affects every company and each of us bristles under the blow of this cudgel. Of course, this applies to the kind of people the organisation is unhappy to let go, and, not the other kind, where they actually let out a sigh of relief upon receiving their resignations! We are speaking of “regrettable losses” here.  Though McKinsey coined the term War for Talent in their research published in 1997, the Talent Agenda has been a war whoop, a call to arms for HR professionals from times immemorial. Hiring the right talent, with the requisite skill sets, has never been easy. And yet, all line leaders and HR leaders know how important good talent is for the success of an organisation! Once you have managed to recruit them, retaining good performers has been the modern-day equivalent of the task of Sisyphus. Try as you will to retain them, the good people you hire continue to explore greener pastures elsewhere, leaving you perpetually in the talent market, looking for the magic wand, which would help you to attract and retain exceptional talent for your organisation.

 

In Quotes “All line leaders and HR leaders know how important good talent is for the success of an organisation! Once you have managed to recruit them, retaining good performers has been the modern-day equivalent of the task of Sisyphus.

 

If I were to steal a narrative from my personal experience, the talent retention dilemma was brought home to me in the form of a rude shock when I was heading HR for Johnson & Johnson. Ram Kay (that is as close I can come to revealing his real name) entered my room one day, and, asked me for a cup of tea and told me that he is resigning! Ram was an Engineer-MBA (IIT+IIM) with great results under his belt for all the franchises he worked on, was promoted as the youngest Brand Manager for Johnson’s Baby, had won APAC awards for his advertising and marketing schemes, and, was nominated to the Global HiPotential pool of J&J. Moreover, we had flown Ram Kay to Shanghai to dine with the Global Head of J&J Consumer Products business since she wanted to meet the Top 3 Talent in the APAC Region personally only three weeks prior to this fateful meeting. So, when he revealed his intentions to resign, I near about fell off my chair! On asking what wrong the company, or his boss, or HR had done to deserve this, he only said, “I am bored”. When I offered relocation to Singapore in the Regional HQ or any country of his choice or even to North America, his answer was, “Vikas, I am bored. And, I want to do something different!” Ram was leaving a plum assignment in a reputed MNC, working on a brand that would be any marketeer’s dream, because he wanted to become a guitarist for a rock band!

 

Imagine my sheer disbelief at such a turn of events. How do you counter the offer of experiencing the blue sky, being on the road with a small band, and, playing the guitar? J&J lost Ram due to his desire and interest to pursue something completely unthinkable, out of the ordinary, in terms of his career. The traditional trappings of success and career meant nothing to him. Having put on my thinking cap since then as to what HR could do differently, I have penned down certain alternatives.

 

Respecting employees’ career

 

First and foremost, we need to recognize that while the company and HR are facilitators, we need to respect the fact that it is the employee’s own career! While we can suggest and cajole, recommend and guide, ultimately, it is a decision to be taken by the employee; since it is his life and career that is at stake here. The end decision is his, and, we must respect that. Career and Succession planning, however robust a system we follow, will always hit against this limitation. But, we need to be asking the right questions from time to time, along the way so that the surprise I felt with Ram happens rarely. During regular conversations with all our talent, we should be probing and sensing what is on the top of their minds, their thought process, and, what is cooking in their head. “Stay interviews” are important. Being a friend and a confidante; and, regular scheduled conversations with all the HiPos is thus the first action step.

 

Sharing future plans

 

Sharing future plans of the organisation is a second step. Talk of the business and where it is headed; what investments are planned in the next 3-5 years, and, how we see growth in the company. All this is one part of the story. The second part is to be transparent, and, openly share what role we visualize the HiPo growing into: what are we grooming him for? Often, it is debated whether it is a good idea to “list” the HiPo and let the employee (and the rest of the company) know the HiPo status of individuals. While there are examples of companies on either side of this argument: I for one strongly plumb for announcing the “Listers”. If your decision in identifying the HiPos has been accurate, data-based, result oriented and fair & transparent, there may be a challenge for the HiPos to get acceptance from the hoi polloi, but, people will reconcile and adjust. They also get direction and clarity on how careers are getting developed in this company. Making such positive examples also motivates the rest of the organisation to be selected for such inputs, and, gives the right thrust to the performance orientation we are driving in the company.

 

In Quotes “If your decision in identifying the HiPos has been accurate, data-based, result oriented and fair & transparent, there may be a challenge for the HiPos to get acceptance from the hoi polloi, but, people will reconcile and adjust.

 

Hiring excess talent

 

A third “next practice” in this area is to hire excess talent, and, keep that “slack” in the manpower budgets. This slack/excess can be a part of the Learning & Development team. This is not a new concept. The 40 year old Management Trainee scheme of DCM or the Tata Administrative Services established even earlier, were ahead of their times, but used such trained and selected talent as springers, whenever talent gaps became apparent while running the business. Assignments on the war fronts further develop identified talent. The principle here is “develop far more numbers than your immediate vacancy- based requirements.” And, that is the reason behind ICICI identifying more than four, ready now successors when Kamath was due to retire. And, that is reason behind Unilever becoming the net “exporter” of talent to the Indian corporates, and, is termed as the school for future CEOs. GE and AlliedSignal are two great examples in the US corporates where more than one ready now candidate is available for succession to the highest job.

 

While IIMs and ISB have emerged as great suppliers of talent, one of the companies I was associated with aggressively pursued the Indian “brain drain” talent. They actively scoured and sourced talent at INSEAD or the management schools in UK and the US. The promise was an independent job, compensation comparable to US/UK markets, and a chance to clear off their educational loans taken to fund their MBA abroad. Of course, it created a bicameral comp structure back home; but, fearless discrimination in favour of talent enabled the organisation to get such HiPos engaged, and, also look after their homegrown talent. Retention and great business results were the result. Solutions are available. You can win the War for Talent. But, it will involve taking risks and discriminating positively for the chosen few.

Vikas Shirodkar is Director, Basil HR Advisory Services and Professor Emeritus & Dean, MET Institute of Management. He comes with a robust experience of 34 years in the industry and has worked in organisations such as HCL, Siemens, Atul Products, Johnson & Johnson and General Motors. He is the author of the book “Foundational Skills for Budding Professionals”. Vikas holds an M.A. in Organisation & Industrial Psychology and a Fellowship in PM & IR from IIM, Kolkata.

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