Managing Flight Risk in a Workforce That’s Always Looking

April 2, 2018 | Bill Catlette | HCI
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Not long ago, a client CEO and SVPHR asked if any of the three executives I was coaching for them presented a flight risk. My reply was to the effect that the operative word wasn’t “any,” but rather, ALL of them. Sure enough, over the ensuing nine months, each made his exit. As the economy and job market continue to warm, this has become an all too familiar chorus.

In early March, the Department of Labor reported that the U.S. economy had added over 500,000 jobs during the first two months of 2018, suggesting that the 100,000 or so people who quit their jobs daily are launching into a target-rich environment.

On the front end of this continuum, I see roughly 100 RFP’s submitted weekly by employed professionals and managers within 300 miles of my home who are seeking professional advice on improving their interview skills via LinkedIn’s ProFinder program.

These people aren’t merely ‘flight risks.’ Rather, they are poised at the end of the runway with engines turning, going thru the pre-flight checklist. They are leaving; it’s just a matter of when and where they might head.

What does that have to do with you? Everything, if you’re in any sort of labor-intensive business.

There are people on your team, especially A and B players who are in this mode right now. The important questions being do you know who, and what, if anything are you doing to mitigate the flight risks?

Three suggestions.

Get Closer, a Lot Closer to Your People – This is not the time to deal with your teammates from a distance, or via completely digital channels. Texts, emails and phone calls are pretty good for emoting … less so for listening. They might give you proximate definition on words actually spoken, but offer no insight on unspoken words. For those things, you have to get off your chair, go visit them one-on-one, listen and observe.

In a lecture to the Armed Forces Staff College, Gen. Melvin Zais, former commander of the Army’s 101st Airborne unit opined that, “You can smell fear in a man’s breath, but you have to get close enough to him to smell it.” The same can be said for someone whose commitment or interest may be wavering.

Coach or Remove Failing Managers – Owing to the increasingly short-term nature of the employment relationship, and the fact that many mid- to upper-level managers seemingly lack the time, inclination, or ability to coach new leaders, the majority of level 1 and 2 managers are flailing, failing or both. As has been said ad nauseam, but not especially well acted upon, these are the very people who turn droves of happy warriors into flight risks.

It’s imperative to be aware of the capabilities and development needs of every manager, and be assured that they are capable of quickly reaching full competence as a leader. Absent that, we should help them find something else to do for a living. In that vein, it is well past time for us to get serious about learning and development, both as a builder of organizational capacity and a tool for increasing workforce engagement.

As a somewhat related matter, one thing we strongly encourage executives to do is to maintain regular skip-level conversations throughout their organizations. When done right, these meetings serve as an extra finger on the pulse of the organization, and an opportunity to have honest conversations with people about their careers.

Get Good at Making Meaning - The combination of reduced job tenure and vastly increasing levels of complexity in the modern workplace causes workers to lose sight of and connection with the organization’s core purpose. This is especially the case when individual contributors find themselves attached to several different projects or teams across the organization. Their information flow is typically reduced, as is their ability to see a clear connection between their work and real, paying customers.

People who can’t clearly make that connection find it nearly impossible to remain enthusiastic about where their effort is going, and when you feel that your effort is being misspent, you leave. Hence, it is vital for leaders at every level to make meaning by connecting those dots for every single person on the payroll. It would be nice if this was a one and done proposition, but it’s not. To maintain real connection with our work and the organization, people, all of us, need regular, bold, visual reminders of just why our work matters. Former J&J CEO, James Burke maintained that this one task, which he spent upwards of 40 percent of his time on, was one of his most important priorities. The rest of us would do well to follow suit.