Creating a world-class team is tough enough but keeping the team together, especially when you're growing a company, is one of the greatest challenges you will face. One of the cornerstones of the success of my first Inc. 500 company was putting together a core team that stayed together for well over a decade; we didn't lose a single person out of a management team of 20. There were four cornerstones we put in place that made this possible. None were exceptionally difficult, they cost nothing, and yet it's still rare to find them in other organizations.
As you read through this list, keep in mind that these aren't practices meant to keep everyone. Some people will be disoriented, dazed, and just plain frustrated in the kind of environment I'm about to describe. That's because this is meant to keep the best people. For them these are the things that count.
1. Turning mentoring upside down.
"...only 14 percent of companies have a reverse mentoring program in place."
Mentoring relationships can be among the most valuable and meaningful professional and life relationships. One of the first things we did for every new hire was to assign everyone a mentor who was not his or her boss. However, over time something far more interesting evolved; the younger proteges became Reverse Mentors. Soon new hires were assigned to more senior team members to help them understand leading edge changes in the marketplace.
One of my reverse mentors was a 20-year-old music major who had started to play around with the internet--in 1995! Twenty years later we co-authored a book, The Gen Z Effect, on the importance of cross-generational work. Reverse mentoring creates a foundation of respect--a bond that pays enormous dividends as an organization grows, and for many years to come.
Yet, only 14 percent of companies (out of a sampling of more than 600 companies we surveyed) have a reverse mentoring program in place. Go figure.
2. Going unhinged.
"Nothing is more powerful in keeping a team together and instilling a sense of belonging than the knowledge that everyone's voice has enough value to be heard and that everything can be heard."
I'm not sure exactly when in our evolution we made this decision but I do recall that it was met with more than a bit of resistance since virtually everyone we hired had no precedent for it. The germ of the idea was very simple; since we were preaching the benefits of architecting disruption into an organization's culture, why not allow it to occur naturally in our own culture?
So I created the ultimate disruptor: I had every door in the company taken off of its hinges and put into storage--yes, including my own. Disruptive? You bet! This was not an "Open Door" policy, which gives you the option of a door; there simply were no doors. It clearly got across the message that anyone could, at any time, walk into anyone else's office and be heard. The effect that had on collaboration is impossible to overestimate. Yeah, this is a tough one to swallow if you're used to closing a door, but stop and think about all of the very negative messages those closed doors send out. Nothing is more powerful in keeping a team together and instilling a sense of belonging than the knowledge that everyone's voice has enough value to be heard and that everything can be heard.
3. Full disclosure.
"Let people in and the good ones will stay in."
This one is a close corollary to the no-doors policy. Far too many companies try to keep their finances under wraps. Unless you're a public company, governed by the regulations of the SEC, I have a simple piece of advice to you: "Give it up." We live in a world of transparency where the expectation is that if you are not sharing, then you are hiding.
Financial transparency is tough. It means that you have to educate people and often justify decisions. It's easier not to have to do that. But let's face it, you're in business for economic reasons and you measure your success based on certain hard metrics. Why not inform people of and align them with those same metrics? If you have structured compensation to include success sharing--from profit or equity--the power this has to create enduring loyalty is huge. I've seen far too many company founders allow control and greed to erode their ability to retain key players. Let people in and the good ones will stay in.
4. Inspire creativity by allowing failure.
"What many leaders do not understand is that to get more innovation you have to accept a higher rate of failed experiments."
Of all the ways to retain talent, I've found one to be the most important: giving people a license to experiment and be creative without the fear of condemnation if they fall short. It is human nature to want to be creative but being creative means taking risks. That's why there is nothing more powerful you can do as a leader than acknowledge creativity by inspiring people to experiment, reward their success, and acknowledge their well-intentioned effort when they fail.
Trust me, I'm not about to suggest that you encourage failure after failure. But you need to give people acceptable boundaries within which they can experiment. What many leaders do not understand is that to get more innovation you have to accept a higher rate of failed experiments. As you acclimate people to the fact that small failures are not fatal, they start to take license with creativity and develop a much better ability to overcome setbacks and refocus on success. That sort of an environment creates a workplace that people just don't want to leave. Check out this short two-minute video What Fuels Creativity? to learn more.
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