Google's decision to place senior vice president of advertising (and employee No. 16) Susan Wojcicki at the helm of YouTube offers an important lesson about retaining employees.
Re/code reports that Wojciki had recently had some of her responsibilities on Google's senior executive team split with fellow SVP Sridhar Ramaswamy. Moving on from Google wasn't out of the question. "Wojcicki had been interested in running her own thing [and] had also been a recruitment target for a venture capital or perhaps a CEO role," the website reports.
Google's dilemma--a high-performing worker wanting to give her leadership skills a whirl--can come up at any company. You might not be able to hand your employees the keys to a brand as powerful as YouTube, but you can let them scratch their itch by letting them launch their own projects under your umbrella. In other words, you can retain your top talent by encouraging a culture of intrapreneurship.
I know, I know. The term is one that causes many business owners to roll their eyes. It's been found in the pages of Inc. since the 1980s, but rarely is it clear exactly how a small business with a distinct focus can realistically expect to let every employee chase her dream.
A few months back though, I was able to interview the leader of an Inc. 5000 company--Kansas-based marketing firm DEG Digital--about the company's dedication to encouraging intrapreneurial endeavors. Among the feathers in CEO Neal Sharma's cap: More than half of all DEG employees have a different title than the one they were hired with by the end of their first year at the company.
Sharma related the story of then-DEG web strategist Cara Olson, who years ago told him she wanted to leave the company to launch her own email marketing startup. Sharma listened to her idea, then asked her whether she'd want to stick around and launch the project for DEG. Eight years later, Olson manages 30 employees, and email marketing is one of the company's biggest business units.
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The obvious and important caveat about Olson is that she didn't want to start a recipe blog or open a coffee shop. It's unlikely that Sharma would have let her do so on DEG's time. She wanted to start something that made sense for DEG to have under its umbrella.
So it's important to clarify that for small businesses, an intrapreneurial initiative should be judged on its fit with your company. Sharma says he tries to approach every employee-pitched project as a venture capitalist would, thinking about the kinds of returns it could ultimately net DEG. At the same time, it's necessary to weigh how well you can afford to lose that employee.
In the case of Wojcicki, Google's brass clearly didn't want to lose her. She's been with the company since some of its earliest days; the company even operated out of her garage for a time. Putting her in charge of YouTube keeps everybody happy.
Google's experience with Wojcicki doesn't perfectly mirror DEG's with Olson, but both drive home one obvious, yet easy-to-forget point: One key asset you have in your effort to retain top employees is, when reasonable, to let them do what they want.