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Great Resignation - Leaders put people before projects

Overcome the Great Resignation: How Great Leaders Put People Before Projects

by | Aug 16, 2021 | By Karin Hurt and David Dye, Winning Well |

The Great Resignation is new–the art of cultivating loyalty is consistent.

When you hear stats like 4 million Americans resigned their roles in one month or that 40% are considering a change in job, you might feel nervous about the future of work, and how the heck you build a culture of sustained performance in all that turmoil. The pandemic has certainly created upheaval and transformed work. If you feel anxious about the future, you’re not alone. Leaders across industries face challenges posed by the remote work revolution, varying degrees of workforce risk tolerance, and seismic disruptions if the Great Resignation hits their team. The good news is that the fundamentals of fostering employee connection and loyalty may look different, but the principles haven’t changed.

7 Ways to Protect Against the Great Resignation

  1. Connect
  2. Care
  3. Consult
  4. Cultivate Curiosity
  5. Contribute
  6. Communicate
  7. Commit

Tales from the Great Resignation

Recently we spoke with “John,” a C-Suite executive at a national organization, who had just added his name to the list of those leaving their company during the Great Resignation. He was the last of ten other senior leaders who had resigned over the prior six months.

The CEO and Board Chair had looked at the ten previous resignation letters and, seeing the similarities in complaints about toxic culture, concluded that those ten executives must have “had a letter-writing party” to craft such similar messages. Although clearly frustrated, they attributed the turnover to another COVID casualty.

That’s when John knew there was no hope for transforming the organization’s culture and wrote his own letter.

Another Chance to Build Culture

“Karl,” a CEO we spoke with that same day, related the story of a recent in-person meeting for his national leadership team, their first face-to-face meeting in two years.

Two hours before the first day started, we received word that one of our newer team members had passed away. She’d only been with us for two months, but many of the leaders there had interacted with her and people liked her. I postponed our agenda that morning. We replaced it with a short announcement, an opportunity for people to share their thoughts and memories.

We happened to have a chaplain in attendance, so I asked her to say some words as well. Then we took an extended break to allow people to process, grieve, talk with one another, and write cards to her family.

During the break, one of our Board of Directors, a retired CEO herself, approached me and said, “Karl, don’t you think we should move this along? I mean, quite a few folks here have never even met her.”

It was a great opportunity to talk with my Board Member about culture. For every person there, whether they knew the woman who passed or not … they knew that how we valued her would be how we valued them. We sacrificed two hours of agenda, but nothing in those agenda items would have done as much for our team.

John and Karl’s organizations are in the same industry and share the same pandemic environment. Their employee retention and engagement, however, are miles apart.

Leading People So They Want to Stick Around

As the pandemic and uncertainty persist, we invite you to consider putting people before projects. Your connection to your people and their certainty that you care about them are more important than ever.

We’re not saying people instead of projects. It’s people, then projects. The people, then the work. There’s no greater loyalty than the person who can say “My boss is a real human being who knows me, cares about my success, and brings out the best in me and my team.” A team full of those people is hard to beat. Here are seven ways to build that connectivity:

1. Connect–as human beings.

Connection begins by being a leader people can connect with. That means sharing appropriate vulnerability and investing in conversations beyond the work from time to time. And, almost nothing builds connection faster in these conversations than truly hearing and seeing the other person. One of the most effective ways to do this is to reflect to connect. When someone shares an experience, joy, or frustration, take a moment to reflect on what you’ve heard or seen back to them.

2. Care–about the whole person.

For us, one of the most touching moments of this pandemic was an intense, high-urgency sales leader who looked at his leadership team and told them, “We’ve got to focus on our people. How are they? Who’s hurting? How can we help them?” Whatever else might happen, his team knows he cares–not just about their results (he does), but about them as people.

As you get to know people, learn about their people, pets, and projects. What matters to them outside of work? How can you express interest in these things from time to time?

3. Consult–your people.

Hopefully, you aren’t making decisions in isolation. But look for opportunities to bring in people beyond the usual decision-makers. When you describe the problem or challenge you face and invite people into the discussion, two things happen. First, people feel valued–you’ve recognized they have something to contribute. The second benefit is that they have perspectives you can’t have because their work and experience are different from yours. You’ll make better decisions.

4. Cultivate Curiosity–for innovations, improvements, and efficiencies.

In addition to consulting your folks for solutions to problems, wise leaders ask courageous questions to uncover micro-innovations and opportunities to improve workflow, customer service, and other business enhancements. Often, people don’t know they have a valuable insight to offer until they’re asked. For them, it’s “just what they do.”

5. Contribute–to people’s growth.

Most people appreciate opportunities to grow. Growth and development don’t necessarily mean upward movement into management or leadership roles. There are many ways you can help your people expand their capacity. Opportunities for growth include skill training, different responsibilities, and more interesting or challenging work.

You don’t need to do all the development work for your people. You can use tools like our Developmental Discussion Planner to help employees take responsibility and partner with you for their development.

6. Communicate–consistently.

Communication is vital to every relationship, but it’s easy to take it for granted. You might think everyone’s sick of you communicating that key initiative, but they’re probably just beginning to internalize it. You can use our 5×5 Communication strategy to plan your key messages. These should include what’s important, what’s changing, and what’s staying the same. And one of the most important items you can communicate is why all of these are true.

7. Commit–to accountability and performance.

It may feel counterintuitive, but high-performing team members value accountability. They want to achieve results and be part of a team where everyone pulls together and contributes their best. When you let slackers slide, you’re telling your top performers that you don’t value their effort or contribution. Help everyone on the team keep their commitments to one another to improve morale and productivity.

Your Turn

The Great Resignation is not a foregone conclusion. While the pandemic has disrupted how many of us work, the fundamentals of leadership haven’t changed. Show up with confidence and humility. Focus on results and relationships.

We’d love to hear from you: What are some of the best instances of connected, human-centered leadership you’ve seen over the past 18 months?

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Karin Hurt and David Dye

Karin Hurt and David Dye help human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. As CEO and President of Let’s Grow Leaders, they are known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. Karin and David are the award-winning authors of five books including, Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. David Dye is a former executive and elected official. Karin and David are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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