Agencies, Don't Lose Your Most Talented People

How to Turn Your Employees Into Volunteers

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How much does it cost to lose a great strategist, designer or developer?

At agencies large and small, it's the smart and talented individuals who invent the ideas that win projects, and later develop the solutions that produce value. When a great creative or technical employee leaves, an entire engagement may be placed in jeopardy, a body of institutional knowledge lost, and the whole team's morale may be shaken.

In today's climate, the most talented creative and technical professionals are very much in demand. They know they have options when the stress of day-to-day production makes it seem like the grass might be greener at another company. While the national average employee turnover rate is 14.4% annually, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, in the tech sector it stands at 25%. Advertising is even worse, with agencies losing a mindblowing 30% of their talent each year.

It's up to managers to create conditions where the most valuable employees actually want to stay where they are. That soft skill of making people happy will pay off in many ways, because when someone's mind is at ease, there's more mental energy available to develop great creative and technical solutions.

To get in the mood for this approach to management, imagine that your employees are ... volunteers. Pretend for a minute that money doesn't exist and you need to provide value to your team in other ways. What would make your staff so fulfilled in their jobs that they'd be happy to do them for free if they could? Here are a few strategies that will make your employees want to stick around for the long run:

1. Find people who care.
Start by finding people who are truly inspired by what your company does. Interview by asking leading questions about the typical challenges your clients bring, and make sure that you're hiring someone who is passionate to develop not just any type of product, but those you typically produce. If it's just a "job," their inspiration to innovate may never be ignited, leaving a restless soul who's distracted and undermotivated. When passion and opportunity align, you get a team member who shows up to work every day, for reasons that go beyond earning a paycheck.

2. Manage their emotional state.
No one would volunteer to do something that makes them miserable every day. If knowledge workers are unhappy or feel uncomfortable about some aspect of what they're doing, their work will suffer and so will the final product. Ask them often how they are feeling, give them time and space to be honest, and listen closely to their answers. Demonstrating that you care about how they feel creates connection and motivation, and happy people make better stuff.

3. Explain why.
Explaining the overall organizational goals and the motivations behind management decisions engenders trust and gives people a sense of ownership. Just as volunteers work for a cause, not just an organization, the same can apply to your business and staff. Each person needs to understand why their tasks are significant and how they fit into the big picture. When they do, completing each deliverable will become even more fulfilling.

4. Don't instruct -- collaborate.
There is nothing that motivates a strong creative or technical person more than solving challenging problems, but it's critical to assign tasks the right way. Don't say "Do this task with this method," but instead say, "Here's where we need to go. I'd like to hear your ideas on how we can get there." People will be motivated to do their best work when they feel like they are in control of both the solution and the strategy.

5. Pay with credit.
Reward success with personal credit. People might work for money, but they thrive on achievement. When you imagine your staff as volunteers, you'll really get a sense of how much you appreciate all their hard work. Send out a note to the whole company giving props to a team, or better yet, recognizing individuals' achievements. It's amazing how this type of positive reinforcement can be worth even more than a bonus, as it feeds self-esteem that infuses all aspects of life.

6. Invest in their future.
When you enable your staff to learn new ideas, technologies or approaches, you won't just get better results and solutions -- you'll improve their confidence and bragging rights about the company. Send them to training, a conference, or just pay for them to watch online lectures during office hours. Making these relatively small investments in your team members will help them become better professionals, and they'll be grateful for the opportunity. Invest in their future, and they'll know that you see them as being a long-term member of your team.

If your team were all volunteers, you'd think a lot about how to keep them engaged. Employ the same strategies for paid employees, and they'll think twice when a headhunter comes calling.

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