Should you put customers or employees first?

This is not a new debate in the core principles of company growth, but it has taken center stage in today's world. The fast-growth companies I study and work with have a deep focus on developing employees -- creating a thriving place to work. It is not that they don't have the customer's needs in mind. They just want their employees to serve the customer like they are their own.

In 2015, Gallup research estimated that millennial turnover costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion annually. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) predicts that every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs six to nine months' salary on average. CEOs from the Inc 5000 definitely want to create a place that employees love to work and want to stay.

Here are three factors that drive a culture of employee retention:

1. Create a compelling mission.

According to Gallup's State of American Workplace Report, 78 percent of employees are not convinced their leaders have a clear direction for the organization. But when company leaders think big, they bring together talented people that want to be a part of the whole picture. "Having a moonshot mission is what allows me to attract and retain talent," says billionaire Naveen Jain, an innovator who is the co-founder of MoonExpress and founder of Viome. Both companies have big missions: land on the moon, and make chronic diseases a matter of choice.

For nearly three years, I have been working with Dagger, a strategic content agency that made the Inc 5000 list this year largely by focusing on employee retention. Dagger CEO Mike Popowski's mission is to attract best talent who want to create new kinds of content to engage consumers. The work they are doing with video, for example, allows for better storytelling and new ways to engage with consumers on an emotional level.

2. Give employees a place to grow.

The Gallup research on performance reviews stated that only three in 10 employees would strongly agree that someone at work encourages their development. This is heartbreaking to see. I know the pressure early in your business to focus more on the company needs than the employee. My own company revolved around the ability to sell, but it became a place for employees to learn new skills in selling that would end up paving the way to new opportunities for them. This structure of education became my competitive advantage.

Dagger has grown from four to 44 employees in a short period by giving their teams work with big brands like IHG, AFLAC and American Cancer Society to name a few. I do think the size and level of work they are doing inspires the employees to work on high-profile projects that are seen around the world. I used to work in an agency in 1990 -- and I really loved seeing my work in the world.

As your employees grow and gain new skills and experience, they are more valuable to the company. I have recently been giving my team new projects that caused them to be more engaged in their work than ever before. For our podcast, Leaders in the Trenches, my team has found new ways to create small videos that are placed in other social channels like Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook.

3. Give your employees flexibility.

Employees hate to be micromanaged. Well, everyone hates it. In today's world of talented employees, they want to be heard and appreciated. In some cases, they want real flexibility in how they engage with their work.

My wife, Amanda Hammett, recently interviewed Erin Welken, an employee at John Deere, on her podcast, Millennial Rockstars. Welken tragically lost her husband a few years ago. After taking a little time off, the leadership at John Deere wanted to give her what she needed in coming back to work. She thought about it and said, "I would love flexibility in my work schedule as I try to find the new normal." So, leaders at John Deere was able to allow more time to work from home as Welken adjusted to her new life.

Looking back at that moment. Welken felt understood by leadership. "I will run through walls for them now," she says.

As a company leader, wouldn't you like to know that your employees are so loyal to you that they would do anything for the company? Companies need a focus on both customers and employees to grow in today's world. It may feel like a balancing act, but it really is just finding a way to get employees to feel like you care enough about them -- so they can put the customer front and center.

Published on: Aug 31, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.