The real reasons employees leave, and how to keep the best

by Jim Welch

Why do people leave teams and organizations? The number one reason people leave jobs is because they fail to connect with their bosses as leaders and as people. People are rarely honest about why they leave a company. Too many associates that depart follow Jimmy Conway's advice (played by Robert DeNiro) in the 1990 hit movie "Goodfellas," who told Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), "Never rat on your friends and keep your mouth shut."

There is no upside incentive for the employee to be open and honest. Think about it! The primary reason people leave companies is because of the relationship and lack of emotional connection with their boss. However, it is almost never talked about in the exit interview. Why? Who wants to burn a bridge with a boss they may need for a future job reference? It is easier to talk about work/life balance, moving on to build your skill sets, or the need to make more money. Salary is much further down the list as a reason to leave than what is usually reported in exit interviews. What is your current game plan to keep your best people? While most companies talk a great deal about the need to retain the best people to sustain growth, they lack an integrated game plan to create retention momentum.

As a leader, you are personally accountable to acquire and retain the very best people. It is that simple. If you fail to recruit and retain the top talent, you will not sustain growth over time. At the end of the day, the effective leader must embrace a plan to retain the very best talent.

Emotional Connection Points

Emotional connections provide the fuel that greatly enhances retention. It is driven by the trust and development of your individual team members. It starts with building your emotional connections with each team member.

The power of the unexpected is the most powerful way to emotionally connect with another person. Think about it! Do you get more credit with your significant other when you send a hand written note when it is least expected? Of course you do! The same concept applies to you as a leader. It is the unexpected things a leader does that really make the difference. Some examples:

  1. Write a personal handwritten note or send a greeting card to the spouses or significant others telling them what a difference their partner is making to your business.
  2. Take employees to breakfast, lunch, or dinner (if appropriate) and ask them what really matters to them and what you can do as a leader to help them build their future dreams.
  3. Take your entire team out together to celebrate a special event. For example, when I was with Hallmark, I would take my team out every year for a holiday dinner in the private dining room of a local restaurant. I would go around the room and say something special about each of the team members at the end of the meeting. The primary message delivered in front of the entire team focused on the unique skill sets each person brings to the table throughout the year to make us all successful.
  4. Place a call to a significant influencer or key family member in their lives. You should make phone calls to fathers and mothers if you believe it will make a difference to your best employees. Always ask permission first if you are going to contact anyone beyond the spouse. It is impossible to know without asking whether a call to someone's parents would be comfortable for an employee or not. You also should follow any laws or rules regarding employee privacy.
  5. Create a surprise, fun outing as part of a team business trip. For example, I took my team on a business trip together to the West Coast. While on the trip, we made an "unexpected" stop at "The Rock," or Alcatraz in San Francisco. This created wonderful experiences that directly enhanced team bonding.
  6. Create local, fun activities for the team. These events are fun team activities that should be done during regular business hours to truly be appreciated. Weekend team activities that cut into individual personal time are almost always guaranteed to land with a giant thud. Remember, your team wants you to be a great leader. They are not looking for another weekend friend.
  7. Utilize your boss to deliver special praise for a job well done in a one-on-one meeting with your team member. If you are not a CEO, you can engage the person you report to, to conduct a one-on-one meeting with your best performing team members. Again, this meeting should be unexpected and focus on results and accomplishments as well as the recognition of the unique strengths of the individual. If you are a CEO, having a key member of the Board of Directors call one of your best people just to tell them how much they are appreciated will go a long way toward retention.
  8. Create an unexpected personalized memento for individual team members celebrating the accomplishment of a major event.

Retailer Connection

Ron Cox, an Ace Truvalue Hardware owner in Appleton, Wisconsin, represents a great example of emotionally connecting with employees. Ron sent a handwritten note and gift card to the significant other of each of his star employees to let them know how much their spouse meant to his store as a highly valued employee and person. These emotional connections will be transferred to the customer as Ron's staff "pays it forward." In the 2000 movie "Pay It Forward," Kevin Spacey indicated that sometimes the smallest things make the biggest difference and by using random acts of kindness you can "pay it forward." This will work very well from you to your employees and in turn to your customers.

Big Foot

I have always had a habit as a leader of stomping my feet when I walk down the hallway. People could always hear my size 12 loafers before we made visual contact. This habit has followed me throughout my career. During my early years I was counseled to walk slower and talk lower if I really wanted to move into senior management ranks. My teams always had fun with my foot stomping on a regular basis. In fact, I was given the unexpected gift of a "big boot" from my team that was placed on a plaque with the inscription "Big Foot… Keep on Stompin'." Everyone had a great deal of fun with this award at my expense. I loved it!

Combine all of these emotional connections with self-effacing humor. Always remember, humor at the expense of your team almost always removes deposits from the emotional connection bank. Take your job seriously, but go crazy making fun of yourself. Your team will love it. Humor also relaxes your team and reduces tension. Why was the movie and television series "M*A*S*H" so successful? They conveyed humor that was so necessary to maintain sanity in a horrific situation.

Home Turf

Don't forget how the little things can make a huge difference. For example, instead of always having your people meet with you in your office, go visit them on their home turf. It is a sign of mutual respect. The ironic part is that by going to their home base, you give up your legitimate management authority to that person. They will actually see you as a more confident and caring leader. The location of the meeting is a little thing that makes a big difference. You will increase your effectiveness as a leader when you visit your people's home turf regularly.

Make Time to Connect

Remember, people do not usually leave organizations. They leave their leaders. If you lose enough good people, your organization will be unable to grow. The effective leader understands that emotional connections to the leader are the most powerful retention devices in the tool kit.

If this is all true, why do leaders so often fail to build these emotional connections with their people? Because it takes time and places many leaders outside their comfort zones, thus increasing their vulnerability. It is easier to tackle those 85 e-mails sitting in your in-box. What many leaders fail to realize is that they are actually more vulnerable if they choose not to invest the time to do it. How does the time needed to replace all your top talent compare with the investment you need to make to emotionally connect with your people? You need to invest every day.

About the author
Jim Welch is founder and president of The Growth Leader, Inc., a well-known business leadership consulting firm, and principal owner in LeadershipFuelNow, LLC. He works with Fortune 500 clients and entrepreneurs throughout the United States. Welch previously was corporate officer elected by the Hallmark board of directors and senior vice-president of marketing responsible for brand strategy and portfolio management, advertising, promotion, the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and market research. He also previously played a key sales role in the marketing of products for Procter & Gamble. He is the author of "Grow Now: 8 Essential Steps to Flex your Leadership Muscles."

You may like these other stories...

Accountants without a succession plan are hurting not only themselves but their clients as well. Here are seven ways to see your practice continues after you retire—some of them are better than others.What Are Your...
In my last article, I discussed the model of value pricing and the benefits this billing structure offers you and your clients. However, in order to set up the right value pricing for your client, you need to know what...
Remember the old joke about the devil showing a guy around Hell? There were great parties, swimming pools, and sumptuous food. The guy liked what he saw, lived a bad life and went to Hell when he died. Upon arrival the devil...

Already a member? log in here.

Upcoming CPE Webinars

Aug 28
Excel spreadsheets are often akin to the American Wild West, where users can input anything they want into any worksheet cell. Excel's Data Validation feature allows you to restrict user inputs to selected choices, but there are many nuances to the feature that often trip users up.
Sep 9
In this session we'll discuss the types of technologies and their uses in a small accounting firm office.
Sep 11
This webcast will include discussions of commonly-applicable Clarified Auditing Standards for audits of non-public, non-governmental entities.
Sep 26
In this jam-packed presentation Excel expert David Ringstrom, CPA will give you a crash-course in creating spreadsheet-based dashboards. A dashboard condenses large amounts of data into a compact space, yet enables the end user to easily drill down into details when warranted.