This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
I've noticed a disturbing trend in the Gen X and millennial leadership talent pool. High performers are cashing out and leaving. The house in the city is being replaced by mortgage-free living and acreage in the country. The drive to the top job is being shelved for a 12-month "step out" sabbatical. The 100-hour work week hard-charger is hanging up their own shingle to work, when they want, with who they want. "Critical experience" relocations are being declined and organizations are feeling the pinch as their next-generation leaders are opting out of stepping up and leaning in.
As baby boomer executives wonder why the next two generations are making crazy career choices, the bigger question is, why are so many talented employees choosing to get divorced from work? Perhaps we need to look to traditional marriage to find the answer: basic incompatibility.
A study by the Institute of Divorce Financial Analysts says 43 per cent of divorces occur as a result of poor communication over personal values, expectations, needs and beliefs – which get bundled under the term, basic incompatibility. A marriage in trouble replaces intimate conversations with transactional ones (What's for dinner? Who's picking up the kids? What time will you be home?), features arguments over money, and has couples retreating behind screens or pursuing activities outside the home to avoid dealing with deeper marriage challenges.
Now, replace "marriage in trouble" with "work relationship in trouble". Transactional conversations and demands rule the modern workplace (Where's this project? What time does the meeting start? Who do I need to talk to about X?). A relentless focus on quarterly financial results trumps the well-being of individuals, and e-mail has become a preferred method of communicating (the ultimate hiding behind screens).
We're doing little to cultivate healthy relationships at work. Instead, in the name of efficiencies, we are using technology to limit human contact under the guise of "process improvements": hiring by webcam; meetings by conference call; performance appraisals by e-mail – technology is replacing dialogue. We develop leaders in "online courses" that test their skills in "simulated" environments and then wonder why the No. 1 reason people resign is because of their relationship with their boss.
In performance-based organizations – where the motto is becoming "what have you done for me lately?" and the pressure to grow profit year over year in shrinking markets is relentless – getting to know co-workers as people (not just job titles) feels like a frivolous waste of time. And yet, when Gallop's employee engagement survey asks the question, "Do you have a best friend at work", one of the key underlying implications is that it's relationships at work that lead to increased engagement and increased productivity.
For a marriage (or any close relationship) to thrive, you need open dialogue and a shared sense of values and purpose; where each partners' needs are met and the needs of each partner is balanced so that one isn't outweighing the other. For organizations to thrive, there needs to be a balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the company. If your key talent is leaving, the needs of the company are clearly carrying too much weight.
For leaders looking to curb the brain drain, we need to shift our focus from retaining people through bonuses, perks and benefits to understanding the needs and motivations of people. This leads to stronger relationships and a better balance between the needs of the organization and the individual. Try these activities:
Talk about values incessantly
When our personal values are aligned to those of organizations, commitment increases – as does productivity. Just like in a marriage, a shared set of values helps teams make decisions quickly and increases alignment. Great company cultures which attract great individuals are built on a shared and visible set of values. Think Zappos, Google, gAdventures.
Clarify job expectations regularly
Given the pace of change, expectations for team members shift frequently. Revisiting role expectations regularly is crucial to retaining ambitious, achievement-oriented individuals.
Step out of transactional conversations
Take time to get to know your co-worker. Laugh, celebrate and have fun together. We've replaced work hard/play hard cultures with work hard/work harder cultures. Forty to 60 hours a week is a long time to be in a relationship that's not working. Throw a party, take people to lunch, buy them a coffee or take time at team meetings to share a weekend highlight or a personal and professional success from the prior week. Get to know each other as people.
Be willing to be vulnerable
Vulnerability takes courage and builds bonds. Most people today are drowning. Ask for help by creating peer groups internally where you can share strategies that work. When you bring like-minded individuals together, you will likely find innovative solutions to shared challenges.
In the scheme of things, these are all small fixes. To truly stem the talent exodus, senior leaders, and directors of boards in particular, have to ask themselves, "What is enough?" Gen X and, to a greater extent, millennial leaders are not buying into the relentless pursuit of growth at all costs. With disability and workplace mental health issues on the rise, a tipping point is coming. Open conversations, listening and balancing both the expectations and needs of the organization with the expectations and needs of a new generation of employee is the only way companies will successfully keep their top talent. Or they will need to lower the bar on performance expectations. The game has changed.
Glain Roberts-McCabe (@ExecRoundtable) is founder and president of the Executive Roundtable Inc., a Toronto-based organization that specializes in leader-led and peer-driven coaching and mentoring programs.