Got a Great Employee? Hold On to Them. . . Or Not!

August 12, 2016

As the Program Manager at CNE, I think a lot about why people should invest in professional development. A lot of my own professional development has recently focused on reading interviews and articles related to this topic. I’m also—along with the rest of the CNE staff—reading Daniel Pink’s Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us in preparation for our upcoming staff retreat. With all that floating around in my head, I’m offering some reasons to invest in developing internal candidates.

Frequent, unplanned turnover is bad. But keeping people in positions they don’t enjoy and that don’t challenge them might be even worse. We don’t want unmotivated, disengaged employees—it can lower productivity, degrade the atmosphere in the workplace, and spread a bad reputation for your organization. In an interview with BridgeSpan, Eric Robbins, CEO of Camp Twin Lakes offered this advice:

My advice to small nonprofits is to make a commitment to your staff to develop their skillsets and human networks, even if your firm offers little or no actual career ladder for them to climb. Doing so will help you attract terrific staff and improve your organization’s reputation when staff leave to work elsewhere. As nonprofit leaders, we have an obligation to help others grow whether our organization has two, 10, or 200 people.

Robbins sites two examples from his own organization’s strategy. The first seems pretty obvious: work to cultivate internal candidates. This practice has several benefits compared with hiring externally. For starters, you’ll see a change in your bottom line. There’s a few reasons why. You won’t be spending as much on advertising and interviewing. Onboarding will take less time. And performance reviews and retention rates both tend to be higher among internal candidates.

Investing time, energy, and money into your staff also has less tangible outcomes. It shows people that you value and trust them. That feeling of trust works in your favor because, as Daniel Pink suggests in Drive, it increases employees’ sense of autonomy which is an important aspect of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from a sense of autonomy, a passion for our work, and a desire to achieve mastery. And it works better than external motivation (think big pay checks and performance based bonuses) for getting people to perform complex, creative tasks well. If Pink is right about the effects of internal and external motivation, increasing trust through professional development could be a better investment than merit-based raises or bonuses.

The benefits of Robbins’s second strategy seems down-right counter productive: he lets high performing staff go. Robbins explains, “we have encouraged people to leave—not because they were poor performers but because they had promising skills and talent, and needed more than we could offer.” Is he bonkers? I don’t think so. Listen to his rationale:

A staff member in our Development department recently left to take a position running the foundation group at the University of Georgia. That, to us, is going to only help us to recruit the person behind her because she was able to learn and grow enough here to move on to a bigger position.

It’s all about optics. Having exceptional people build their skills within your organization, feel valued, leave on a positive note, and find another great job makes for pretty good advertising.

There’s always going to be turnover. Robbins has found a way to take some control over that inevitable fact of life. He diminishes it where he can and makes it work for his organization when it does happen. A savvy management strategy indeed.

I can offer some anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of this strategy. I began at CNE as the Membership Manager, which was primarily an outreach position. Because of my background and interest in education I was hoping to eventually find a way into programs. I felt like this was a possibility from day one because my supervisor stressed CNE’s willingness to support employees who want to grow into different positions within the organization.

As luck would have it, the then Program Manager got accepted to a grad program in South Carolina. When CNE offered me this position, I jumped on it. And although it wasn’t a promotion in the traditional sense, the offer made me feel like CNE understood me and saw the value I had to bring to the organization—the kind of feeling that we tend to associate with a move to a bigger salary or a corner office. Because CNE was willing to take a chance on me, rather than bring in an outsider, I have a strong sense of ownership in my current role. I feel like a highly valued member of a team. And that’s worth a lot.

— Andrew Robinson, CNE Program Manager

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We encourage you to check out the site and you can find a recording of our launch town hall here.

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