It doesn't matter if you sell software or soft drinks, without dedicated employees, your company will not realize it's true potential. Your greatest resource walks out on two feet, everyday. And sometimes they don't come back.

I've learned that instead of spending my time chasing the unknown, trying desperately to ensure every employee is happy every hour of every day, I had to step back and assess what I've learned to truly make impactful changes.

Yes, turnover is inevitable. And it's not really news to say that the best strategy is to focus on creating alignment between employee and company success. We hear this consistently, but most of us struggle to put it into practice.

So, what's the greatest lesson I've learned from turnover?

Lesson 1: Retaining committed employees and empowering them to act like owners should be your highest priority.

I founded a services organization -- we only have one product: our people. Turnover has the ability to resonate negatively into every aspect of a business. Even the loss of one employee is often devastating. Although you may have taken steps to minimize this wherever possible, it still hurts.

Long ago I had to come to terms with the fact that some members of our tribe will leave. No longer is working at an organization for 20 years typical of today's modern employee. The best thing you can do is create systems that minimize the negative impact.

My methodology for attracting and retaining talent hinges on two keys:

  1. Transparency
  2. Mutual Reward

We try to be as upfront as possible and give candidates as much exposure to what life is like at LeadMD early on. It takes time and proper planning, but it's important to get everyone aligned to the same goals and make our progress incredibly visible.

Next: reward the team when the company wins, and at the same time the company should succeed when the employee does. It's tempting to incentivize behaviors that really don't translate into ROI success. For example: billable hours. It seems like a no-brainer for a services organization, but it's one dimensional and often defeatist. Just because we've billed hours doesn't mean we are doing things right. We have to be closing projects and creating happy customers and employees. Billed hours captures none of that.

Lesson 2: It's never too early to start

I've always been in tune with turnover from an emotional aspect -- I've felt every single hire, fire and attrition at LeadMD. From a systems perspective, we really started tracking employee metrics when we hit 20 employees. We also brought on several talent management solutions to help with this at that time.

Your efforts must scale as your company scales. We use tools like Bloomfire as a knowledge base for employees to turn to and populate as our services (and employees) grow. We also have the usual project manager tools. Two other valuable platforms we turn to are SixBricks for training and G2 Crowd to encourage customer feedback and reviews. By having the right tools in place, employees feel supported and confident.

Lesson 3: Turnover lessons should impact how you hire

I'm an optimist. So, hiring always felt like a sales pitch; when we first started, were trying to get the best talent. And we were wrong.

We should have been focused on getting the right talent.

Right fit is critical and we found out the hard way: What works on the employee side doesn't translate to the consulting side. Now, we immerse the candidate in the types of experiences they will have in consulting through practical exercises. This has been so successful we've started spinning out a platform that enables this called Six Bricks.

Lesson 4: Measure success the way that makes sense to your business

Everyone talks about the power of engagement -- there are reports touting its importance for days. The key to engagement is that it captures that intangible feeling when someone 'leans in.' It's so critical.

I've learned that engagement is a better indicator of success than performance. We formed a reward program that centers around mentorship and giving thanks. The program is designed to reward the great things you see in an employee daily that may go unnoticed via reporting, or KPI's monitored by execs.

We incentivize recognition and the behaviors that really help others, like contributing to our internal knowledge base and helping team members solve problems. This is where the connective tissue of the organization is really formed and it's critical to foster those behaviors.

Lesson 5: Individuals look for purpose

Employees leave for one key reason: They no longer feel emotionally attached to the work and mission of the organization. Individuals want to feel like they're making a difference and impacting others. They care about personal development, learning and wanting to feel they're a change agent or expert.

Because of turnover, I've set out to identify what drives an employee. I created feedback loops for both performance and fulfillment and having scheduled one-on-one consults are excellent measures. By doing this I've found an accurate gauge of an employee's mindset and what gives them purpose.

Lesson 6: Always be open to feedback

Being a CEO is an interesting job, from the outside world's perception you're in complete control -- but internally you are beholden to everyone. A CEO is accountable to every employee and it often doesn't matter who is right or wrong, it matters how your people feel. To protect and foster an employee, it's the CEO who may have to fall on the sword or forego the need to be "right."

Nearly every week I'm presented with a situation where I must read the words emblazoned on our wall -- "Perception is Reality" and simply admit that regardless of intentions, something I said, or did, didn't resonate clearly.

By being open to feedback, you develop a culture where others are comfortable enough to share that feedback with you -- it's the greatest gauge of success or failure. I constantly try to change elements of myself; it's always a journey and it's really, really hard. I am not the person I was when I started this business and that is perhaps my greatest accomplishment.

Push and pull, give and take leadership is a collection of learnings, not a suddenly acquired skill. When one of your team walks out the door, never to return, it's a lonely moment. When that happens, you have to walk back in, wiser for it, just as you're asking everyone else to do.

Published on: Sep 1, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.