A retention toolkit for innovators
As the economy picks up and unemployment rates continue to drop, I can forecast with a good deal of certainty that the turnover rates among all employees will increase. The value of and the demand for innovators will increase even more rapidly. In addition, innovators who have felt “stuck” at a firm for several years during the downturn may now have a reduced need for job security. And even if they have been treated well, they may simply be in the market for something new.
It is possible to retain almost every employee (many top firms like SAS have a 2-3 percent turnover rate), provided that you have the right tools and you are willing to be aggressive.
In the first part of this retention toolkit for innovators article  I covered retention tools and approaches that could be implemented solely by innovator’s managers. In this second part, I cover numerous additional bold and aggressive retention tools and approaches for innovators but each of these requires some outside support from HR or senior managers.
Part II — 17 Bold and Aggressive Retention Tools and Actions for Innovators That May Require Senior Management or HR Support
In many organizations, some of the elements of the retention toolkit for innovators require the support of higher-level managers or HR. Some of the tools that require external support include:
- Calculate the business impacts of innovators – unfortunately, most organizations, even the most successful ones, hesitate before they are willing to treat innovators differently and spend additional resources and time on them. The most effective way of avoiding these roadblocks and getting support for building a retention toolkit is to make a powerful business case that convinces executives, HR, and the individual managers that direct the innovators of their tremendous economic value and ROI. It’s not sufficient to simply show the number of innovations that they come up with. You must go further and calculate both their dollar impacts on revenue and their performance differential between an average employee in the same job. Keeping innovators is certainly expensive and time-consuming; however, the expense is minimal compared to the cost of losing a single innovator to a competitor.
- Ensure that they have a great manager – if you conduct delayed “post exit interviews” after innovators leave, you will likely find that “their manager” is often a primary factor. Managers are important because they have so much control over the things that excite and frustrate innovators, so it is critical that innovators continually have a great manager. The best approach is to let the innovator select their own from a pre-approved list. However, even after they are assigned a great manager, you must continually work with them to ensure that they are managed the way that maximizes their retention, as well as their output using a “how-to-best-manage-me” profile.
- Provide innovators with faster decision-making – high-tech firms like Google and Facebook have learned that innovators get frustrated with slow decision-making on approving or implementing their ideas and projects. If the decision-making time becomes frustrating, you will either demotivate or lose your innovators. If possible, develop an accelerated decision-making process for innovations so that they don’t get frustrated over slow decision-making and bureaucratic delays. Periodically measure decision-making speed to ensure that it is faster than your competitors who might try to lure your innovators away.
- Have a senior manager periodically “re-recruit” innovators -- even when innovators are treated well, they are often startled when they are periodically lavishly praised and courted by outside recruiters. The best approach to keep their heads from being turned is to beat the external recruiters to the punch by having a “level up” or senior manager re-recruit their key innovators at least once every two years. That means that you treat these targets like they were going to become a new star employee and you then “redo their deal” and their job at least to the level that an external recruiter would likely offer to re-energize and excite them.
- Let managers know what retention levers are available – most managers are not trained in retention, and because they are often conservative, they all too frequently are reluctant to try new retention approaches. You can, however, expand the range of retention levers (actions to keep an employee) that managers will use by distributing a master list of what has been offered in the past by other managers in your company. This broad list of things that are okay to try will increase the likelihood that reluctant managers will try retention levers that they’ve not used in the past. HR can also help by letting managers know which retention levers or approaches are most effective at directly countering individual reasons for wanting to leave. Incidentally, it’s equally important to let managers know which retention approaches normally have little impact. Those often include company-wide actions and benefits that apply to all employees, sabbaticals, retention bonuses (money doesn’t matter if the job hasn’t changed), and development that is not matched with the availability of new opportunities.
- Accelerate internal movement – in some cases, innovators reach plateaus or simply become bored within a particular team or function. In those cases, the innovator will have a choice to move either internally or externally. Obviously, if you don’t want them to take the external “I’m leaving” option, you need to proactively move the individual using a process known as intra-placement before they start taking external recruiter calls. HR should follow the lead of firms like Cisco  and Booz Allen and assign an internal recruiter to accurately and rapidly place innovators into exciting opportunities in other parts of the organization before they get frustrated. Innovators should also be periodically offered part-time on-site or virtual rotations that allow them to learn new things while still devoting most of their time to their current project. A plan to accelerate the career progression, to clarify the innovator’s career path, and to show them where they will likely be in 2-3 years may also prove to be valuable in improving retention rates.
- Isolate your innovators — unfortunately, one of the best options to maximize innovation is to physically isolate your innovators in a separate floor or building where innovators can operate with fewer controls and pressures to conform. This is beneficial because operating alongside other innovators will spur collaboration, learning, criticism, and best-practice sharing. In addition, it will minimize the interaction and the negative impact of “corporate antibodies,” which are long-term employees who seek to force new hires to closely conform to the existing organizational norms.
- CEO calls and visits — innovators want to know that their work is considered a high priority among executives. A powerful way to demonstrate that is to periodically ask the CEO (or equivalent executive) to call or visit. It is important during that contact that the executive knows their past and current work and that they express excitement about its potential impact on the company.
- Ensure that there are performance differentials – every survey of what motivates innovators that I have seen does not list salary among the top three. Be warned that although money is not their primary motivator, they do however expect that there will be a significant reward-and-recognition differential between successful innovators and those who fail to innovate.
- Monitor and track innovator retention — HR shouuld assign someone to innovation retention and then develop a program that focuses on the retention of key innovators. In addition to developing a retention toolkit for innovators, it should also develop templates, frequently asked questions, a directory of informal retention advisors, and a best-practice-sharing process. HR must also develop and share with managers a list of the specific “why-they-are-leaving” factors that it has identified that are contributing to innovators leaving throughout the organization. Obviously HR also needs to monitor and report what is working and what is not working.
Some Additional Aggressive Approaches to Consider That Require The Support of HR
- Implement a boomerang rehire process – even the most effective retention efforts might fail, so HR should develop a process that immediately starts to let the departing innovator know that they would be welcome to return someday. This requires an off-boarding interview, a corporate alumni group, and a process that periodically attempts over time to recruit the most desirable innovators back to the firm.
- Educate them about life at the competitor firms — use your current employees who have recently worked at competitors (they are known as Brown-grassers) to informally educate your innovators about the bad features and the false promises made by recruiters at these firms.
- A Blocking strategy may be needed – an HR-directed blocking strategy may be necessary in order to limit the access of external recruiters have to your innovators
- Create a CRM process – HR can develop an electronic customer relationship management process that periodically reminds individual managers via email when they should implement or repeat recommended retention approaches.
- Measure and reward managers for great retention — most organizations do not directly bonus managers for having low turnover rates among all employees, no less innovators. Measuring, rewarding, and widely reporting every manager’s success in retaining innovators can have a powerful impact.
- Create a retention SWAT team – HR should develop a quick response team to respond to a manager who is losing a number of innovators or for cases where an individual critical innovator is at risk of immediately leaving.
- Reinforce the company’s image — retention rates increase among innovators when they are educated on the factors that make their firm is superior. HR can help by providing managers with a side-by-side comparison demonstrating how your firm is superior in opportunities, image, benefits, and innovation rates compared to the competitor firms and even startups that innovators might consider moving to.
Most of the authors who write about retention recommend broad-brush solutions that are applied across the entire organization. Under this popular approach, all employees are treated equally and there is an underlying assumption that all employees quit for the same reason. Both my research and experience have taught me that such a one-size-fits-all” approach is a mistake with most employees, but it is a disaster when you are dealing with top performers, game changers, pioneers, or innovators. Because these individuals stay and leave for completely different reasons than the average worker, tailor your retention approach to fit the unique needs.
I have also found to my chagrin that the retention solutions that are typically offered (more pay, better benefits, more work/life balance, etc.) by HR are a complete mismatch with the actual factors that cause employee turnover at the firm. In order to ensure that the retention solutions offered “perfectly fit” the reasons that an innovator would leave, I do not recommend a single company-wide HR program. Instead a much more successful approach is for HR to put together a toolkit which provides individual managers with multiple choices, so that they can select the tools that they are most comfortable with and that best fit the individual innovator that they are trying to retain. To me this toolkit approach provides a superior “one-size-fits-one” solution and using it may allow you to keep every single innovator that you target.