Retention thinking is so dark ages

The other day, I wrote this on Twitter:

Why do you care about staff attrition when you are winning the war for talent and can hire anyone you want?

It caused a few people to write back with contrarian views:

@NickDellaRiva said:

Corp knowledge must count towards speed of execution / delivery? If not, why does education matter at all?

If that were true, we would let start ups innovate & then buy them out. Except Newsltd can't $ google, changed barriers entry

Final word..bcse no company can attract all of the talent & leverage. Individual stars vs teams. TDF 4 examp. join wch team?

And @RafManji said:

because you lose the soul of your business

And finally, @GerdShenkel concluded:

what matters is "regrettable" attrition. @ubank we measure that we a lot of care.

These are interesting arguments, but they don't go to the real point I was trying to make. Mind you, it is difficult to make any point on Twitter, since the truncation of 140 characters means you must be overly brief. Since that's the case, I thought I'd better clarify.

Imagine this scenario. You create a company that is so interesting, and so innovative it is the default choice for everyone in the marketplace. The sort of company, for example, that Google used to be. The sort of place where there is instant street cred the moment you disclose to everyone you work there – sort of like Microsoft was once. Where there are free meals, staff benefits beyond belief, and above all, the most interesting work available.

In such a company, you can pretty much get any skill at all you need. All you have to do is advertise the fact that you're looking and you get a whole buffet of choice. Ignoring the fact for a moment that such an oversupply of qualified people will likely exert downward pressure on financial compensation, in such a company, you can't care much about attrition, and here is the reason.

The new, young, workforce you'll be hiring (with all this choice available) won't be thinking in terms of staying around for long. It is one of those things I've begun to notice as I get older, and the people I'm working with get younger. They don't sign up for careers any more. They do gigs. Short term, interesting work fulfilling them right now, but unlikely to do so for more than a year or so.

Our next generation workforce is much more transient. They think, in fact, that CV blocks of more than two years are almost worse than 2 years without work at all. The other day, for example, I was talking with one of our new hires, and he asked me this:

"How long do you think I can stay in this bank before I won't be able to leave it?".

This was not a questions related to any particular golden handcuffs we might have wrapped him up in either. No, his concern was that the longer he spent in our institution, the less transferable he would be elsewhere.

I see this effect all the time, and the thinking is quite different to that of workers in previous generations. When I speak to freshly minted bankers practically anywhere in the world, I get the same reaction.

So in other words, as the younger workforce becomes a more significant percentage of the overall total, attrition is going to increase, no matter what you do.

The ultimate point of all this, and which I failed to communicate in my tweet in the first place, is that thinking retention is very dark ages, very traditionalist. It implies that something is lost when people do gigs instead of work. I don't think that is true, because collaboration and other digital technologies enable the "soul" of a company to transition rapidly. You don't need to have heroes and multi-year experience to preserve capability any more.

What you do need, however, is to get a super-star at short notice to solve specific problems. Increasingly, that's what we'll be spending most of our time on anyway, as the cores of our business become more commoditised and more like utilities.

And to do that successfully, you need to think attraction not retention. You need to build the company that is the default employment choice for a significant percentage of people in a given market.

2 Responses to“Retention thinking is so dark ages”

  1. Rob
    July 8, 2009 at 7:10 am #

    So perhaps we should think less of attrition and more of turnover, given its inevitable – they’re one and the same really, as you replace people who leave, but turnover could be much EASIER if you’re an attractive place to work.
    DO we think any of these companies have to spend vast amounts of money to FIND someone – http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/bestcompanies/2008/ – I doubt it. There’d be people queueing up all the time, so attrition is ok, it just becomes turnover.

  2. Avi Pollock
    July 8, 2009 at 2:22 pm #

    Interesting topic and I don’t necessarily disagree with the conclusion. That being said I’m still not convinced that once this younger workforce ages 5-10 years and have spouses/kids/mortgages/etc/ that the stability gene won’t kick in. That’s pretty much what happened to me and many of my peers who while in our 20’s in the mid-90’s had the same transient perspective during the dotcom boom. It wasn’t the bust that changed the behaviour as much as the new life stage we were in. I guess time will tell.

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