The biggest open secret of employee retention (hint: nothing to do with money)

We all seem to agree today, after several TED talks and direct experiences, that while money is critical to hiring, retention seems to be a different ball game entirely. What we do not seem to be sure of is which factor replaces money as #1 in this quest to earn the trust and loyalty of our people, especially in the fast-moving scenes of tech.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

We often hear respected CEOs and leadership coaches emphasize how we treat people (very important); how much we invest in their development (super important); and how much of a voice they have in the workplace (spot-on); but there is one factor we probably do not talk about enough. It is one thing I have been a student of since I read the late Stephen Covey rank it as the most important dimension is his book, The 8th Habit which I read in the earlier days of co-founding FourthCanvas. It is said to be the deepest of human desires — the desire to be a part of something bigger than one’s self.

(We humans created, defined, and guard religions, for example, with our lives just to be a part of something bigger, you know.)

We may often look around and find many people who appear perpetually selfish and idle, and it is hard to imagine that even those people desire to be a part of something bigger. But yes they probably do. They may either not have scratched the layers of their needs to arrive at their deepest layers or they may have ignored them after bouts of disappointments, but at the core of it, we all want to have a sense of duty to some bigger purpose.

Maybe you want to reflect on that for a moment, with yourself as an example? What has driven your decisions the most? What places did you stay at for so long, where did you do your best work, and why? Maybe it was the values the bosses represented? Or what the company communicated and lived by?

While writing this, I reached out to exchange ideas with someone I deeply respect who I had met at a media agency many years ago. She now works at one of the biggest tech companies in the world. She was always one super-committed team lead whose work ethic and personality really inspired me back then, as well as everyone around her. “This thing you are talking about is what made me stay for almost 7 years, it was clearly not money”. The agency was not one of the higher-paying teams in those years but she was one who clearly got and keyed into the bigger mission the leaders consistently made it all about.

At a time of increasing social injustice, inequality, and civil unrest, (or say, a time of more access to updates on how worse things get every day), it is understandable that people are experiencing higher feelings of insecurity, stress, and depression. And it makes sense to imagine that this increases that desire to find fulfillment and joy in something true and meaningful.

If we (business leaders) will look beyond the transactional dimension we are wired to play in, there is an opportunity to create great businesses (read: brands) that give people this sense of belonging to something that matters in the grand scheme of things, no matter how little. And it pays off, in increased performance and productivity, because deeply happy people (beyond team-bonding fun) do meaningful, committed work.

In the earlier days of FourthCanvas, our people worked hard and took initiative so much that we promoted 5 of our employees to become partners with us in the ownership of the business, which is more of a mission, an audacious attempt at something possible but not always apparently realistic. To date, our biggest initiatives—from the Africa Challenger Brands report, the 4C Share sessions during the lockdown, our most strategic sales moves and service developments—have come from our team members, and not from us the two co-founders.

One major motivation they point at when they share is how clear it was in the air that we were onto something. They were taking fuel from a mission they helped to define, which was about building a global agency renowned for partnering with good businesses to build great brands, one that we all championed and acted by. Our immediate reality was far from that vision but our everyday actions and words spoke to it.

When one of them who started as an intern was offered a full-time role, he said in an internal interview which remains one of the biggest quotes in our history: “I knew FourthCanvas was a global design agency and I knew that even if I was the least on the team, it would mean that I was a world-class designer”. We didn’t look anything like a global agency but his statement reflected something we repeatedly longed for, spoke about, and acted in alignment with. A combination of that larger-than-life missionary atmosphere, with actions that align, as well as an open, friendly atmosphere where everyone had a voice to contribute to that big mission was a critical factor for how we have inspired the levels of commitment that we have seen.

To be honest, in recent years, I have had reflections on my personal inadequacies in modeling commitment to this mission, and it has spurred me to continuously find opportunities to do even better, even though they would say we have done well. The more my everyday actions embody our grand purpose, the higher the levels of fulfillment, commitment, and retention that we will see.

When Steve Jobs spoke about thinking different and making a dent in the universe, he was embodying and communicating this. And he ensured that every single day, he made it a clear point and showed the door to anyone who didn’t align with that big picture. In fact, he did it to the extreme in a way that affected the other component of being kind and friendly, which is also important. But I guess the immediate and lasting success of the company proves how much this factor trumps the other important factors. We don’t have to sacrifice one for the other but whatever we do, the longing to belong to something bigger than ourselves remains the most important we want to live out and feed into.

Let’s take a look at some inspiring statements from a few brands we have consulted for in the tech ecosystem.

Every time the leaders of these businesses reaffirm with their actions that they mean every single word in those mission statements, they are on track in this dimension. The statements alone are empty, but acting in alignment deepens fulfillment (and hence commitment) for their employees. And every time they act in the opposite direction, if they ever do, they leave an emptiness in the bellies of their people.

What does this mean, in simple terms, for us as business leaders? A few tips that come to mind;

Summarily, the idea is to go beyond business school basics and make our organization charged up by the longing of a bigger mission that is in alignment with the greater good and in the best interest of humanity; and to stay true to this as a model for our employees. Nothing deeply inspires any of us more than a leadership we can trust to champion the path of a true, sincere mission.

When we get this right, people want to stay with us. And when they must leave, they remain evangelists and ambassadors of the brand. This brings me to the concluding point. We need to see retention as beyond people remaining on our payroll. Retention is first, of the heart. How much do they continue to fondly remember their time with us, and look out for opportunities to speak well about us?

I thought to create a slot in my calendar if you are looking to chat further on this. I would love to share and also learn from you. Book a time here. Let’s advance the cause of purposeful leadership and brands.

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Victor A. Fatanmi

‘Finding my writing’, under the blanket of the known image of a Designer and Agency Founder.