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Marla Cormier of Emerging Leader Training On The Labor Shortage & The 5 Things We Must Do To Attract & Retain Great Talent

An Interview with Phil La Duke

If you’re committed to attracting and retaining top talent, you’ll want to be the company with a great story, who demonstrates appreciation, offers the best pay and benefit packages, demonstrates a commitment to growth and development, and communicates proactively. When you do, you’ll grab the attention of great talent and retain your existing top performers.

The pandemic has allowed people to reevaluate what they want from work. This “Great Reevaluation” has led to the “Great Resignation” which has left the US with a great big labor shortage and a supply chain crisis. What can we do to reverse this trend? What can be done to attract great talent to companies looking to hire? What must companies do to retain their great talent? If not just a paycheck, what else are employees looking for? In this interview series called “The Labor Shortage & The 5 Things We Must Do To Attract & Retain Great Talent” we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and ideas from their experience that can address these questions.

As a part of this interview series we had the pleasure to interview Marla Cormier.

Marla Cormier is President and founder of Emerging Leader Training. Specializing in training programs for high-potential employees, her company helps organizations increase retention of top talent, develop and maintain an internal talent pipeline, and increase first-time leader success. Marla and her husband Andy live outside of Dallas, Texas with their two dogs, Peanut and Boomer.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

While some kids grew up playing house, and others were out playing the dirt, I was in the back of my parent’s print shop playing school. My mom loved to tell the stories about how I would teach my imaginary students but use the names of my real classmates. She always knew who the troublemakers were by which students I reprimanded. I grew up knowing that I wanted to be a teacher, but it took me some time to realize that teaching adults was where I’d be the best fit. I got my degree in Education from Bradley University, taught elementary school for one year, but didn’t feel that I’d made the impact I’d hoped for. After a couple of years working in the nonprofit field, I had the opportunity to work with MGM Grand University designing leadership training classes for their employees. It opened my eyes to a whole new way to use my degree. Thankfully, everything I’d learned about curriculum design and classroom management was applicable to learners of all ages, so I pivoted and used my degree to build learning experiences for adults helping them to develop the skills to grow their careers.

Let’s jump right in. Some experts have warned of the “Great Resignation” as early as the 1980s and yet so many companies seem to have been completely unprepared when it finally happened. What do you think caused this disconnect? Why do you think the business world was caught by surprise?

For most of employee history, employers held all the cards. They determined the qualifications for getting interviewed, they decided who got hired, they set expectations for work product and schedules, and they determined what career opportunities employees would have. But what employees have recently learned is just how much power they have in the employment relationship. Some of it started with Gen Y/Millennials who came to work with expectations for speedy promotions and consistent feedback, but it isn’t just younger employees who are changing the workplace dynamic. Gen X, and even some Boomers, are getting into the mix, feeling that all their experience and years of service should translate to increased pay, higher titles, and additional responsibilities. As for why companies were caught by surprise, many of them were trapped with outdated, old-school thinking such as remote work isn’t effective and that employees should only receive two weeks of vacation after a year of service. While many companies talked about making changes, not enough of them did, and so, they were left feeling shocked when employees got the upper hand. The workplace has changed, and employees are no longer just accepting the status quo. If their current employer isn’t committed to their growth and development, isn’t offering flexible scheduling, and doesn’t provide them with some autonomy over their work, they’ll shop their career around to another company that will.

What do you think employers have to do to adapt to this new reality?

The key word here is adapt. Companies who want to attract and retain the best must be willing to make changes. As an example, when you think about scheduling employees, are you offering non-traditional shifts like late nights, early mornings, or weekends? By having options such as these, your employees can meet their personal, and professional, needs which can help boost engagement and retention. How does your company handle pay increases? Are you a once-a-year, standard percentage across the board organization or do you tie performance to pay in a more meaningful way, helping your top talent feel seen and valued? My recommendation to my clients who are concerned about retention is to review every process in their employee experience from application through retirement, looking for options, improvements, and alternatives. The question to ask is, “How can we best meet our customer’s needs while also meeting those of our employees?” If you’re wondering where to start, the most impactful areas are scheduling/remote work, and career development. Both speak to the level of trust you have in your teams, and both help employees feel valued and appreciated. If you’re open to updating your approach, these two areas will help you have a positive impact on your recruitment and retention numbers.

Based on your opinion and experience, what do you think were the main pain points that caused the great resignation? Why is so much of the workforce unhappy?

For many employees, Covid lockdowns revealed just how many of their jobs could be done remotely, even when their companies had rallied against it for years. It uncovered a truth, that business leaders weren’t comfortable with employees working from home, rather than the long-held belief that employees simply couldn’t do their jobs from home. What it said to employees was, “We don’t trust you.” That’s a hard truth to get over. For some, it was a call to action to start looking for a new job where they would be seen as valued, trusted, members of the team. For others, the experience gave them time to consider their future and they didn’t particularly like where they were headed. It created an even greater desire to know how to grow within the organization, but without structured career development opportunities, employees feel stuck, overlooked, and yes, unhappy. For an employee who wants to move up in an organization, not having a path forward, or a strong leader to mentor and guide them, contributes to a sense of disappointment, frustration, and unhappiness. But let’s remember that not all employees are unhappy. Some love their jobs and their companies. What we’re seeing is that employees have reevaluated their needs and when those needs aren’t aligned with their current role or company, that’s when they start applying to jobs that are.

Many employers extoll the advantages of the entrepreneurial spirit and the possibilities of an expanded “gig economy”. But this does come with the cost of a lack of loyalty of gig workers. Is there a way to balance this? Can an employer look for single use sources of services and expect long-term loyalty? Is there a way to hire a freelancer and expect dependability and loyalty? Can you please explain what you mean?

Just as with your full-time employees, your relationships with your gig workers are most greatly impacted by communication. Employees of all types are looking for more freedom and autonomy over their work and freelancing is a great way for them to meet those needs, often while still maintaining a steady day job. It’s true that these relationships may not feel as secure as having a full-time employee, but they don’t have to be that much different. Contracts with freelancers that include specific expectations of work, timelines for delivery, and commitments to communicate at various milestones don’t feel that much different from your standard employee. And if they enjoy the work, feel engaged in the process, understand how their contribution is making a difference, and receive timely feedback on their performance, you can create a team of loyal freelancers that support your organization, filling gaps and addressing immediate needs. When it comes to employee loyalty, whether full-time, part-time, or freelance, it comes down to a worker feeling that they are fairly compensated, that what they are doing is valuable, that they feel good about the organization they work for, and most of all, that they have a positive relationship with their immediate supervisor.

It has been said that “people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses”. How do you think this has been true during the Great Resignation? Can you explain what you mean?

Poor leadership is at the top of every “Why employees leave,” list and it’s no wonder. Who has the greatest impact on an employee’s work life? Their immediate supervisor. In previous years, employees tolerated a bad boss because they felt they had to. Today, with so many opportunities, employees are no longer willing to suffer with a bad manager. Bad bosses are often poor communicators. They fail to set goals and expectations, don’t follow up, miss opportunities for recognition, prevent growth and development, don’t give credit to their employees for good ideas and hard work, and don’t demonstrate appreciation for the work their employees contribute. In short, they make an employee’s job harder than it has to be. Make no mistake, your super star employees who are working for poor leaders are absolutely looking for other opportunities. And let’s remember that great leaders are made, which means that if you’ve identified poor leaders within your organization, they are simply people in need of training, guidance, and support to order to improve. Maybe they are in the wrong role, but maybe they just don’t yet have the skills necessary to be a great boss.

I am fond of saying, “If it’s fun they charge admission. But you get a paycheck for working here.” Obviously I am being facetious, but not entirely. Every job has its frustrations and there will be times when every job will aggravate employees. How important is it that employees enjoy their jobs?

Enjoying your work is important for a few reasons. First, employees who enjoy their work tend to be more productive, more engaged, and more accurate. If you love what you do, you’re always looking for ways to do it better, a great benefit to your customers and the company. Second, employees who enjoy their jobs tend to stay in them longer and, rather than leave for a promotion, will investigate growth opportunities in their current organization. Third, when an employee enjoys what they do, the customer feels it. Whether it’s face-to-face direct customer contact, or behind the scenes support, happy employees tend to do more to meet and exceed customer needs. Happy employees also share their happiness with others. From a positive attitude at work and proactive problem solving to positive social media posts about the job and the company, these engaged employees are helping share the best parts of the organization, building the brand, and expanding its reach. What’s also important to note is that people who enjoy their work tend to be happier outside of work. We all know that no job is perfect, but today’s employee expects to enjoy their work, and when they don’t, they feel quite comfortable looking elsewhere.

How do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Most of us have had the experience of being unhappy at work and we know all the ways it can show up; coming in and leaving right at their scheduled time, decreased participation in meetings, lowered productivity because speed and urgency is no longer a driver, and an overall sense of discontent in everything they do. Without giving any extra effort or actively working to mitigate or solve problems, these employees can become a liability, negatively impacting productivity, efficiency and ultimately, profitability. But it’s more than just that. These unhappy employees are struggling just to come in to work each day, feeling badly about the job, their team, and their boss. How do we know? Because they share those negative thoughts with others, helping spread the negativity across teams and departments. The extra weight they’re carrying of disliking their job takes up the energy they used to give to doing the job. When you see someone struggling, make time to check in and find out what’s going on. What are their pain points? How do they want to be supported? What do they need to reengage? Unhappy employees are a flashing warning sign that something is wrong. If you take the time to find out what, and work on a solution, your unhappy employee might just reengage and continue to be a valued member of the team.

What are a few things that employers, managers and executives can do to ensure that workers enjoy their jobs?

First, find out if your employees are happy in their jobs today. Conduct a stay interview to find out what they enjoy about their current role, what frustrations they face, and what a competitor could offer that would lure them away. Discover how they like to be recognized (and then use what you learn to show sincere appreciation), what their career goals are, what training would be helpful to them right now, and who on the team they most enjoy working with and why. Just by having the conversation you’ll demonstrate that you value them and want to find out about them and their experience. Having on going one-on-one conversations where they share how the work is going, where they need support, successes they’ve had, challenges they’ve faced, and goals for the coming weeks, is another great way to stay connected to each member of your team. Through all of these conversations, you’ll learn what they like about the work, and what they don’t, and while you may not be able to eliminate the parts they don’t enjoy, you might just find ways to mitigate them through coaching, training, brainstorming, or process improvement.

Can you share a few things that employers, managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture?

Three areas to look at are communication, work environment, and trust. When it comes to communication, start by identifying all the ways that employees receive information. Then find out if they’re working. Ask your employees how they prefer to be communicated with and if they’re getting all the information they need. (Hint: having one-on-ones are a great tool to enhance communication). Then look at the work environment. After all, it’s how employees experience the company culture. Are senior leaders accessible and visible throughout the organization? Do you celebrate employee and team successes and work milestones? Do teams participate in shared experiences like golfing or a virtual tour of Paris? And then there’s trust. What do your leaders do today that demonstrates real trust in their employees? Do employees have goals and opportunities to demonstrate competency in their jobs? Do they have stretch opportunities to learn or work on tasks that are a bit outside their comfort zones? There’s a lot that can be done to improve company culture, but if you’re looking for where to start, these will help uncover what’s working and what isn’t.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things employers should do to attract and retain top talent during the labor shortage?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Becoming an organization that attracts and retains top talent comes down to being a place that acknowledges and meets employee’s needs. Here are five ways to do that that you can implement starting today.

  1. Share Your Company Story & Vision — A large resort on the Las Vegas Strip tells new hires the story of how the owner took his wife to Venice on their honeymoon, she fell in love with the city, and when he decided to build a new resort, he modeled it after Venice as an anniversary gift for her. A three-year-old startup tells the story of how its founders met in college (and shows goofy photos) and after graduation, spent years working in dead end jobs before reconnecting at a friend’s wedding (more photos) where they stayed up too late, drank too much, and designed the company that stands today. No matter the age or size of your organization, you have a compelling story to share. People want to be a part of a proud history, even if it’s a short one, so tell the story of how the company came to be and share the vision of where you’re going. Help applicants and employees see how their contributions will contribute to a larger legacy.
  2. Showcase Your Culture of Appreciation — A large manufacturing company has a peer-to-peer recognition program that takes place entirely through a phone app. They include images from the app, and videos of employees redeeming points, as part of their recruitment landing page to show perspective candidates how they recognize one another. A boutique hotel has quarterly and annual recognition for employees and leaders. They feature the winners of their program in all their recruiting materials and have the selected employees stop by new hire orientation to talk about their experience. Whatever you do for employee appreciation, make sure you’ve got a communication strategy to share it. Applicants want to join companies that appreciate hard work and loyalty so share how you recognize your employees by using images of the recognition materials you use and photos of employees participating in the program. While this can help a perspective candidate decide if your company is a good culture fit, it also reinforces your company culture when included in new hire orientation and on-the-job training.
    For existing employees, continue to reinforce your program by sharing stories and pictures in your company newsletter, intranet homepage, information monitors, etc. It’s a great opportunity to reinforce your culture of appreciation and keep these moments of gratitude top of mind for your existing team. Want to go a step further? Include an additional layer to your recognition program to celebrate and recognize those employees who are giving recognition to others. It’s an impactful way to thank people for living your culture of appreciation.
  3. Offer Better “Basics” — Every employee expects competitive pay and benefits, that’s a given, so help great candidates find you by sharing the pay scale and benefits on all recruiting platforms and materials. But keep in mind that today’s employees expect more from their employers than just medical and dental so take this opportunity to showcase your unique value. If your company values lifelong learning, an important benefit to showcase would be tuition reimbursement and any partnerships you have with educational institutions. If your employees will work from home or have hybrid schedules, share what you have in place help people stay connected through virtual team building and tools to establish their home office. If you value employee ideas and suggestions, share your process for reviewing process improvements and recommendations so they know that by joining your team, their voice will matter. Make sure to share all of these with candidates to attract great talent and then to reinforce them with existing employees so they are always reminded of the total benefit of working for your organization and how to get the most out of their experience.
  4. Provide Tangible Learning & Development Opportunities — In a recent training class, a participant shared how grateful she was for the opportunity to participate in an emerging leader program. This was the first time a company had invested in her growth and development in a meaningful and actionable way, and she was grateful. Most companies say they offer career development but very few have a real plan in place to help employees move up and around the organization. When you’re serious about attracting and retaining top talent, learning and development are key. From organized, documented, job training for excellence in their role today, to defined courses and experiences to prepare them for opportunities tomorrow, employees want to know exactly what’s available and how to get started. And of course, I have to spend a moment specifically on emerging leaders. Organizations can greatly improve first-time leader success by providing specialized training to them before promoting them into a leadership role so that they establish themselves as leaders today, making that transition smoother for them, and their coworkers. By offering specific training at each stage of the employee journey from new hire and onboarding to emerging leader and management, you set your organization apart from the competition.
  5. Demonstrate Exceptional Communication — How a company’s leaders and departments communicate says a lot about the culture so make sure you’ve got a communication plan for how recruiters, hiring managers, and anyone else involved, will communicate with applicants. Want to make a great impression? Personalized, branded emails are better than stock emails from your HRIS system. A speedy system for contacting applicants by phone is better than having them wait without knowing what happens next. Follow up when you say you will so they learn that you’re a company they can trust. Start the interview on time, after having reviewed their application prior, to demonstrate you value them, and respect their time. It can help a candidate choose to join your team over another. Recruiters and hiring managers who use these tools will enhance every job posting, phone screen, job fair, and interview. When it comes to current leaders, it’s about having daily stand-ups, or huddles, at the start of shift where they share important news of the day like the number of guests in-house, tables booked for dinner service, machines in-shop for work, and other information your team needs to know. In addition, using one-on-ones, dedicated time you set aside on your calendar to listen to your employees, is a great way to show how important listening is to you and the company. These discussions about their workload, successes and challenges they’ve experienced, suggestions for process improvement, and what support they need from you can help them feel more secure, and engaged, whether they are candidates for a position or an existing employee on your team.

If you’re committed to attracting and retaining top talent, you’ll want to be the company with a great story, who demonstrates appreciation, offers the best pay and benefit packages, demonstrates a commitment to growth and development, and communicates proactively. When you do, you’ll grab the attention of great talent and retain your existing top performers.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’m totally fangirling just thinking about this. I would love to have lunch with Rachael Newsham, Program Director for Les Mills. I can’t even say her name without smiling. She leads some of my favorite on-demand workouts to the point that I find myself thinking, “Yea! I get to work out with Rach today!” Because of her, I’ve been able to make a mental shift in my personal wellness journey. I’d really just love to thank her for the positive impact she’s had on me. And maybe do a little karaoke. If she sees this, she’ll know.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?

I’d be happy to connect with them on LinkedIn.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.

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