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A Little-Known Leadership Lesson to Retain Your Top Talent

06/24/2015 10:53 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

Bob owned a successful industrial products company with sales of $2 million per year. Things were getting into a rhythm with small but consistent growth when two of his key people gave notice within a five month period.

The company was forced to scramble to cover their responsibilities and rehire the positions, and Bob was hurt and angry. "How could these team member quit?" he asked himself. He felt like his company had treated them so well, like they were family.

There comes a moment in every business owners life when they are just ready to make a leadership breakthrough, and this was Bob's chance. Sometimes it has to hurt enough to snap a leader out of his or her own story enough to see the situation plainly and thus learn a key lesson.

Because Bob had been a business coaching client of my company for five years, I got to talk with him from time to time. It just happened that I was talking with him two days after the second of the two key team members, Albert, had given notice.

"Bob, if this had only happened once I'd say perhaps it was just one of those things, but you've shared that this has happened multiple times, so what is it that you and your company is doing, or not doing, that leaves you so vulnerable to key staff jumping ship?"

At first Bob didn't want to even look at this possibility and rationalized that it wasn't him or his company. His company paid well, in fact he had just given Albert a healthy bump in base and new bonus plan in taking over most of the role of the first departing team member.

"Bob, what was most important to Albert? What were his most important goals and aspirations?"

A big silence, then Bob said in a soft voice, "I don't know... I never asked him."

Pay dirt.

We spent the next 20 minutes talking about how to uncover what matters most to your key team members, and how working for your company helps them progress in their dreams, goals, and aspirations.

Now maybe you say you don't have time for this touchy-feely kind of thing, but one thing twenty years of coaching business owners has taught me is that if you don't make the time to understand what drives your key team members and help them make the connection of their deep goals to their participation in your company then at some point you'll be forced to clean up the aftermath of their "unexpected" departure.

Here are several tips to help you bring this key leadership insight into action:

• Start in your hiring process. Part of your selection process should include finding someone who has a compelling reason to work with your company. There has to be a meaningful match between your new hire's deeper drives and dreams and what they'll get by working at your company. If not, they'll leave you at the worst time.

• Just ask them. "Albert, what's most important to you in life?" PAUSE and actually listen. "Albert, what are the goals or dreams you have for you in your career? Your family? Your personal life?" PAUSE and listen (yes many business owners need this prompt to give the space to others to share.) "Albert, how does working on our team help you move towards your bigger dreams?"

• Work with them to adjust in order to help them make more progress towards their dreams. Now that you know what matters most to them, give deep and regular thought towards helping them use their work with your company to make progress towards their career and life goals. "Albert, if we were to give you the opportunity to head up the Barriston Project would that help you make real progress on your goal to grow as a project leader?"

• Finally, help them see the progress that working with you has helped them make.
People want to feel successful and see progress. In fact, it's often more important for them to progress than for them to arrive. One of your key jobs as a leader is to help them see the progress they are making on a consistent basis. Sometimes this means articulating it. Other times it can mean that you help them celebrate the milestones along the way.

In the end, understanding your team's personal goals is not a "technique" nor "check the box" thing, rather it's an ongoing conversation and theme that you'll need to revisit again and again.

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