Leaders should do more than reduce turnover

Great leaders can take people where they don’t want to go

It is often said employees don’t leave the organization they leave the manager. While it is invariably true that good leaders are crucial to staff retention, they are also much more. Good leaders are the fundamental ingredient to sustained organizational success.

A number of factors affect staff retention. Organizations that hold onto employees create a work environment that is attractive to the people who are critical to organizational success. These companies don’t think of employees as workers but treat them as associates or partners.

Among the many factors that affect staff retention, the most fundamental component is the presence of people-centred leadership. The quality of leadership, especially in supervisory roles, impacts the quality of work life and improves the organization’s ability to retain employees. It is great leadership that creates a supportive work environment, challenging work, recognition and respect. When leaders focus on people, the organization will also typically have competitive compensation and benefits programs. But quality leadership means much more than simply ensuring low staff turnover.

Jim Collins, in his recent book Good To Great, emphasizes the importance of quality leadership to the long-term success of businesses. Collins says the most successful leaders do not fit the popular media image of an ultra charismatic, larger-than-life character.

Rather, organizations need leaders who can staff the organization with the right people, recognize the challenges and opportunities facing the organization, establish and implement an appropriate strategic direction, and drive the organization to continually innovate and succeed. Former U.S. first lady Rosalynn Carter, president of the board of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Human Development at Georgia Southwestern State University, once explained, “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to be.”

For starters, organizational success has little to do with the quality of the strategic plan. Virtually every organization has a strategic plan; most are perfectly sound and the vision is often clear. But far fewer organizations are able to follow through and implement the plan.

Success depends on the ability to implement the strategic plan and adapt when circumstances require changes. Great leaders combine excellence in people management and strategic implementation. They create an environment that makes people want to stick around. But they also are instrumental in ensuring the right people come on board in the first place and that they are set up to ensure the organization is meeting its strategic targets.

A critical role for all managers is to recruit people who meet job requirements and are committed to the organization’s mission and values. The key is to recruit people who are a good fit for the organization — those with the talents, skills, knowledge and values that are not easily developed in a work setting.

The priority for senior executives is to ensure that the organization’s management team is made up of the right people from executives to front-line supervisors. But it is the line managers who act as human resource managers who must be accountable for hiring great talent.

Managerial study has taught us that organizational success is a difficult journey from point A to point B and is contingent upon having the right people “on the bus.”

However getting great people on the bus is not enough. Leadership must also make sure that everyone is sitting in the right seat. Randomly placing employees in seats does nothing to help an organization succeed and people won’t automatically choose the right seat for themselves. Each seat on the bus has different demands and requirements, and as a rule people, no matter how hard they try, just won’t be very comfortable if they are in the wrong seat.

As a result, the best combinations of skills, knowledge, experience and work style vary. Optimal performance requires a close fit between the requirements of each seat and the strengths of the employee who is assigned to that seat. The more demanding and specialized the requirements for a seat, the more critical that the employee is a close fit.

In expert-based organizations the fit must be almost perfect. Experts are people with critical specialized knowledge and skills that are fundamental to carrying out the businesses of the organization. In health care, this includes the medical staff, nursing and other regulated health-care professionals. The quality and range of health-care services provided by a health-care facility is directly linked to skills and abilities of the staff.

I refer to the process of matching employees to organizational roles as staff utilization management. The best seat for an employee makes significant use of a person’s strengths without placing demands on her weaknesses. High levels of employee productivity can only be achieved when leaders apply staff utilization practices in a systematic and continual manner.

Thanks to continuing managerial research, we now understand that organizational success critically depends on excellent people management practices. The challenge is for the HR department to help managers get the right people on the bus and in the right seats.

Brian Orr is the vice-president of human resources, learning and communications at the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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