When Value Production Isn’t Enough: A Lesson in Talent Retention

About a decade ago, I was working as an internal consultant at a leading Fortune 500 company, providing expert OD guidance and counsel to division-level leaders. It was a role of diverse responsibilities and constantly evolving focus. And I truly found all my activities interesting, relevant, and engaging. Then one day, as often happens in large organizations, a restructure was announced to align the organization more fully around sales support. From an OD perspective, it was a wise, strategic decision I fully supported.

Yet overnight, my job transitioned from providing OD guidance to building sales effectiveness tools, e.g., sales dashboards, activity tracking software portals, and reporting tools. All these tools were desperately needed, and warmly welcomed by our dispersed sales force. I was adding tremendous value day in and day out, and not a day that passed in which I wasn’t profusely thanked for the work I was doing by someone in the sales organization. It really felt great!

And yet, despite the praise, I was struggling. Every day was a challenge to come to work enthused. In fact, I dreaded showing up. The days dragged. And in the end, I simply walked away. Oh, I knew I was adding value to the organization. But simply adding value wasn’t enough, and for most workers, it’s never going to be. You see, adding value often does not translate to a personal sense of purpose for many people.

This is sometimes a tough concept for leaders to fully grasp. Often in my coaching, I hear frustrations from leaders who equate purpose with value-add. They assume if something important is being done, followers will be engaged, enthusiastic, and possess a strong sense of purpose. When this does not happen, leaders sometimes fall back on a mitigation strategy of re-emphasizing the importance of the work being accomplished, only to be further perplexed and frustrated when their leadership efforts continue to yield marginal results.

So, what’s missing in this oft-believed engagement equation?  

Quite simply, it’s the leader’s missing attention to the individual interests and passions of their followers. What appeals to one employee as both important and engaging may to others simply be important. What engages you individually may be completely different than what inspires me. For example, where data analysis and reporting totally get my professional juices flowing, and likely something that most would agree is important for any business effort, others may find this type of work dull, uninspiring, and dare I say, even boring! Similarly, some may find great passion around meticulously building intricate, comprehensive PowerPoint presentations, which can certainly be an important communication medium. I, however, can’t stand such work and it entirely discourages, disengages, and disheartens me. That’s just who I am.

None of this is to imply that individuals should only work on those things that excite and engage them. Unfortunately, that’s unrealistic. Some days, in preparing for a presentation or public speaking engagement, I have to spend considerable time and effort perfecting PowerPoint slides, much as I dislike that chore. There are days as a leader when one must focus on discipline and negative consequences, even if the preference is to praise and encourage (and yes, some discipline can and should include encouragement!).

But where individuals are spending a majority of their time on tasks and activities ill-suited for their personalities or preferences, that is where disengagement occurs. That’s when one should expect productivity to lag and retention risks to heighten. But at such times, there are steps every leader should take.

#1 Learn about your followers’ personal preferences

This is sometimes a challenge in and of itself, as many followers are hesitant to tell their leader what they truly want or like and what they really don’t like to do. So, leaders must create a safe zone for holding these critical discussions. Leaders must endeavor to ensure the bulk of an individual’s time is spent on tasks that the individuals themselves view as purposeful.

#2 Attempt to shuffle tasks and assignments to match preferences

Where possible, a strong leader should attempt to align work around the likes and preferences of followers, realizing at times that operating in one’s “discomfort” zone is exactly what a person needs to build confidence in a new area or skill. But after some time, if increased competence and self-efficacy have not translated into a sense of passion and purpose, it may simply be that it’s not going to happen.

#3 Evaluate the fit

So, perhaps then it’s a last opportunity to further shuffle the deck chairs, attempting to realign tasks among team members. Or it may be it’s simply time to look at bringing in other for whom the given tasks or focus do seem more purposeful. Often this includes managing existing personnel skillfully into positions of better fit, or even helping them transition out of the organization.

In closing, just because an individual never becomes energized or fully engaged by a task (or set of tasks) does not mean that person is a bad employee. They are more than likely just a poor fit for the assigned work. Too often as leaders, we feel bound by the personnel we have. There are times when we indeed should work diligently to inspire and align our folks for maximum effectiveness. And there are times when maximizing productivity means parting ways (from the team or the organization) with bright, talented employees and bringing in others better suited for our vision and direction. Doing so is a long-term leadership perspective that understands that the importance of purpose lies in fit and individual preferences. Because in the end, it’s the strong leader that understands….value does not always equal purpose.

Dr. Trevor Nagle is an Executive Coach & Consultant with Stewart Leadership. He is also frequently asked to speak on a number of different topics around I/O Psychology, Leadership Development, Talent Development, and Organizational Change. Visit www.stewartleadership.com to learn more and follow him on LinkedIn and twitter @IOPsychDoc.

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