Is Attrition/Turnover Inevitable?

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Every day it seems that I wake up to read new reports about work, the great resignation, people increasingly choosing to be nomads, moving from job to job. On the other side, we see employers, some of the “hottest” companies of the past few years, implementing significant staffing reductions–while also complaining they can’t find enough people to hire.

The concept of company loyalty is a historical artifact (interestingly, we never read anything about employer loyalty to their people). Researchers and guru’s proclaim, “suck it up, this is just the way things are, it’s a new work environment……” They provide all sorts of data supporting these premises.

I don’t deny the data, it should be no surprise, for years we’ve seen continued decline of employee engagement, dissatisfaction, and so forth.

But I refuse to accept the defeatist attitude that this is inevitable. To me it’s the height of management failure.

Over the past few years, tenures in all sales roles have been plummeting. According to some research, average tenure is 11-15 months. Turnover, voluntary and involuntary, is in the 40-50% range, with some organizations reporting far higher levels.

We all know, but pay little attention to the real and opportunity costs of this level of attrition. In complex B2B sales roles, it’s devastating, often in the millions. At leadership levels, it can be in the tens of millions.

As I speak with executives about this problem, frankly too many shrug their shoulders saying, “That’s just the way things are these days, we just have to suck it up and accept it.” Others blame it on age groups, “Gen Zs just don’t want to stay at any one company very long….. The pandemic and Great Resignation have changed everything…., It’s different from the old days, Dave, people don’t want to spend their career at a company…..”

Things are different. I look back at my father’s 50+ year career. He had two jobs until he retired in the early 2000’s. In my roughly 40 year career, I’ve had 5 jobs (excluding boards).

Those days are long past, probably rightfully so, but the pendulum seems to have swung to an extreme, turnover is at levels we have never seen, employee engagement has plummeted to levels we have never seen, and lack of trust between people, managers, and organizations, seems to dominate.

But………..

As I look at many of my clients, particularly the very high performing organizations, it’s very common to see much longer tenures. One organization, average leadership tenures have been 15 years. Their sales tenures are about 7 years–but a lot of that is driven by their need to recruit new people to support their rapid growth. Another client has voluntary and involuntary turnover of less than 2%, another has average tenures over 10 years. A fourth has average tenures of 7 years, again part of that number is lower because of the high levels of recruiting they undertake to support growth. 3 are in leading edge technology markets, the third is in a combination of industrial B2B and B2C. And I could go on. Each is considered one of the top performers in their industries. Their competitors target their people, trying to recruit them into their organizations.

Turnover will happen, it always has. People will want a change, perhaps of careers, perhaps a fantastic opportunity, or perhaps a bad fit. Great managers recognize this and always have candidates “on deck” should an opening occur (Most of this is driven not by turnover, but the need to recruit more people to support growth.)

However, accepting this as a law of physics/science is irresponsible.

As I mentioned, before, there are organizations, high performing organizations, that defy the statistics and data. These are organizations where people want to work–not just for the money, but they create a culture that values people, that recognize that business growth and success is really about the people that make up that business, working together with a common purpose, to achieve.

As an aside, the research organizations would contribute more by not just reporting the statistics, but by studying and reporting on the organizations that consistently defy the statistics.

We need to create organizations where people want to work.

We need to create organizations where people feel valued, where they feel heard, where they see that management truly cares about them, their success, development and personal growth.

We need to create organizations that have purpose beyond valuation, growth, and enriching the founders and original investors. Organizations that want to create meaning in people’s lives–their employees, their customers, their suppliers, their communities, their shareholders. We need to recognize that valuation/growth and these organizations are not mutually exclusive–in fact when one does deep analysis, one finds these are factors that drive sustained growth, leadership, and performance.

If we expect our people to be loyal to what we are trying to achieve, we have to be loyal to our people, helping them achieve what they seek.

Culture, values, purpose underlie all of this. Leadership, consistently demonstrating these are critical in walking the talk and making these real.

Finding people that are aligned with these, recruiting them, developing them, hearing them, valuing, and caring about them are critical.

Looking beyond the immediate job of each individual, understanding what they want to achieve, helping them realize their potential, finding ways to grow, develop, and have them continue to contribute at bigger levels is critical.

We need to move beyond treating human beings as transactional relationships–whether they are our employees, customers, or suppliers. We have to value and care about them, we have to create meaning with them.

Attrition will happen. But it’s something leaders must seek to minimize if we want to maximize overall organizational performance.

We cannot accept that attrition, short tenures, and a revolving door is inevitable.

We need to be better than this, our people are better and deserve better.

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