CIO Leadership

How CIOs Cut Through The Noise And Keep Their Best Employees

Retention narratives are loud and contradicting. Worse, retention efforts continue to fail. The ladder has been leaning against the wrong building. It's time to reset it.

Scott Smeester


September 21, 2022

Photo credit:
Swapnil Dwivedi

You are in a war you didn’t sign up for and one you can’t afford to lose.

Employee engagement continues to break all-time lows. The Great Resignation and Great Reshuffling have resulted in Grave Results: Cost increases, productivity losses, low morale and high workloads.

You know the costs of turnover are ridiculous, ranging from a fourth to a third of their salary. The average replacement time is now forty-four days. The workflow interruption is immeasurable.

Retention is a high-priority, and retention narratives sound more like a whodunit mystery waiting for the great reveal than a Disney story with a happy ending. Or maybe they feel  like a slasher movie keeping you awake at night.

Let’s solve the mystery.

Two Major Clues To Solving Retention

Champion People First

The Work Institute Study publishes annual research on the top ten reasons people leave their companies. The first six are lack of career development, work-life balance, manager behavior, job characteristics, well-being, and compensation and benefits.

Lack of career development has been number one for eleven years in a row! Which is astounding because the one solution I hear most companies propose to solve retention issues is to increase compensation and benefits. But it doesn’t even make the top five!

Studies have indicated that 90% of people would trade dollars for development, and that workers would give up the equivalent of 23% of their lifetime earnings in exchange for growth and engagement.

The measure of your leadership is how people are positively different from when they arrived to when they leave.

Customize Development

Why do we have to customize development? Because whatever training we have been doing hasn’t been perceived as career development for eleven years in a row.

Yes, we need some baseline training so that everyone is on the same page. But why has there been such a disconnect between what we have done and what people want?

Picture a three-level pyramid. The bottom level is Motivation. The middle level is Value. The top level is Cost.

We are human. Humans have motivations. Those motivations are generally around pain or pleasure. We want to avoid something or attain something. But more than that, the motivation must be accompanied by a trigger.

We can sit with pain and not do anything about it. We can hold a dream and not move towards it. Until something happens; that something is a trigger.

Let’s say you have an extra room - you know the kind, the bedroom that isn’t a bedroom but becomes a catch-all - and we keep saying to ourselves that we need to get that organized - but we don’t. Then you find out that a baby is coming your way. That’s a trigger. Time to clean up that room and turn it into a palace!

We then assign values to the potential solutions we seek. We determine which options are most likely the best for our context. With that, we weigh the costs, which are measured in the time, ability, energy and money that will be required of us.

Your marketing team is very schooled in this reality. But corporate training doesn’t make the connection. It’s cookie cutter, and cookie cutter development doesn’t cut it (and hasn’t for eleven years running).

Most training and development starts with company motivation (we need people to be trained in X). The company assigns the value (mandatory) and they determine the cost (date and time). Other than the same-page training that is necessary, company-determined motivation, value and cost misses the mark.

The ladder is leaning up against the wrong building.

Solving For Retention

The right building is customized development. The ladder is advocacy.

Every employee you want to keep deserves and needs an advocate.

An advocate is a specific person invested in your personal, relational and vocational development. They are a coach, mentor and champion all-in-one. Mentors pour in; coaches draw out; advocates stay with.

Mentors fill in what you lack by speaking from their experience and expertise; they teach you what to think. Coaches use the art of questions to draw out your thinking on a subject; they teach you how to think. Advocates come alongside you and work with you in areas identified by you; they think and empathize with you.  

Advocates help clarify your goals, determine your best course of action, and help you stay the path.

The advocate will not be you. You can advocate for a few. But the most effective way to advocate for members on your team is to give them an advocate other than you, one who works in concert with you, not in competition.

Advocates are the bridge for every other retention strategy you have in place: improving work-life balance, improving manager behavior, promoting well-being and culture and so forth.

Advocates take what you are trying to accomplish and make it stick.

Best of all, you can afford an advocate. A single advocate can come alongside eighty people at a fraction of the expense of turnover, replacement costs or benefit adds.

To be clear, I am not proposing peer coaching, peer mentoring or buddy systems, as great as they are. An advocate takes development to a much deeper and customized level.

It’s not a movement you may be familiar with, but it is the next generation of employee engagement and development. Bring in a specialist to help you game-plan an environment of advocacy.

Too much is on the line to lose quality team members and to lose out on new talent that can be game changers for you and your company.

You will not lose people when they believe that you see the best in them and seek the best for them.

You will not lose people when they believe that you have their best interest at heart, their best future in mind and their best experience in the forefront of all you do.

And you won’t lose people if you are adamant, belligerent, confident, determined, energized, focused and grounded in the conviction to champion people above all else.

People don’t know what to do with what they’ve got, and they are longing to be developed into the best that they can be in their personal, relational and professional life. Their best is in your hands - but not only your hands.

Please cut through the noise of retention philosophies, lead the way, and give them an advocate. I have more to tell you when you are ready to close the back door on turnover.

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