Two Fail-Safe Principles for Retaining Great Team Members

Recently I had the opportunity to present “When We Align” at Front Conference in Salt Lake City. I shared three axioms for aligning teams: unity over uniformity, chemistry over culture, and people over process.

Yours truly speaking at Front Conference 2018. (Photo: Studio 526m)

At the end of my remarks I emphasized the human component of these axioms by sharing two fail-safe principles for retaining great team members:

Team members stay when they believe in the trajectory of the company/product/team, and when that trajectory goes off course or stagnates they feel empowered to course-correct.

Team members stay when they’re operating at or near their full potential sustainably, and they feel recognized and compensated for doing so.

In my 15+ years hiring, managing, and leading—and running a successful job board to boot—I’ve not found anything more successful for retaining great team members. When these principles are in play among team members, they remain engaged for extended periods. When either of these are lacking, team members are at risk of leaving.

I did a crazy thing years ago when I left a previous job: I kept a copy of my exit interview survey. Recently I stumbled on this survey in some old paperwork. Unsurprisingly, the reasons I gave for leaving correlated directly with the principles I’ve shared here.

Below I expound on each principle.

Belief in the Trajectory

When team members believe in the trajectory of your company/product/team, they feel committed to the cause. When the trajectory stagnates or strays and team members have a stake in altering the outcome, team members feel empowered.

Commitment and empowerment are the tenets of strong belief, and they’re incredibly reliable factors for long-term engagement.

It’s important to note that it’s not necessary for team members to believe in the trajectory of all three—company, product, team. Team members might not believe strongly in the trajectory of the company, but they may believe strongly that the trajectory of their team or product can alter the trajectory of the company. Conversely, team members might not believe strongly in the current trajectory of their product or team, but they may be committed to and believe strongly in the trajectory of the company, and to the degree they feel empowered to help align their product or team’s trajectory with that of the company, they’ll stick around.

Operating at Full Potential (Sustainably)

In my four decades of life I’ve found that human beings are happiest when they are most productive. Your team members joined the company—and your team—to be productive. They joined to give you their very best, and they expect you to provide them with opportunities to apply every ounce of potential they have to offer.

However, note the word sustainably above. Regardless of how productive you help team members feel, they won’t last long on your team if they work long hours frequently, can’t pay the rent, or feel under-appreciated. Hence recognition, compensation, and sustainability are important components of operating at one’s full potential.

Having managed numerous people over the course of my career, I realize there are two sides to the coins of “full potential”. Sometimes an organization can’t offer every opportunity its employees seek, and sometimes there’s misalignment between what’s important to employees and what’s important to the organization.

Since that exit survey years ago I’ve taken to heart the privilege and responsibility of leveraging the full potential of those I lead and manage. Sometimes I’ve been able to provide precisely what team members were seeking. Other times I’ve tried to help team members grasp the vision of what the organization was trying to accomplish even if it meant the work at hand wasn’t a perfect fit with “full potential” or “best”. And on rare occasions I’ve had honest, encouraging conversations about pursuing opportunities elsewhere if misalignment between personal and organizational goals couldn’t be resolved.

Your Role as Manager

As a people manager, your most important responsibility is three-fold: (1) invest time in understanding how team members value their contribution, (2) create the best opportunity possible within the constraints of your organization to empower each team member to operate at their full potential and course-correct, and (3) revisit this conversation regularly (at least quarterly).

The antithesis to the principles I’ve shared here is the notion that team members don’t leave a company/product/team, they leave their manager. While there’s some truth to this, my experience is that people leave managers most readily when their manager fails to embrace the principles I’ve shared here i.e. they fail to inspire team members to believe in the vision of the company/product/team, they fail to empower team members to course-correct, they fail to place team members in a role that maximizes their potential, they fail to recognize team member’s contributions and compensate them adequately, or all of the above.

Managers, embrace the principles I’ve shared here and it’s unlikely you’ll be conducting exit interviews anytime soon.

Former Head of Design @ Facebook Events. Passion for mental performance. Father of 5.

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