Building Dream Jobs for All Your Employees

Nov 8, 2001

In my last article, I discussed some of the keys to redefining retention, and how that can help you reduce turnover among your best employees in today’s rapidly changing business environment. When managers untie their hands, roll up their sleeves, and negotiate with their best employees, they can turn the reasons why people leave into reasons why they will stay. Because individuals, especially the best ones, increasingly want and expect more control, smart business leaders are doing everything they can to negotiate custom career paths in order to retain high performers. But in the real world, what could this possibly look like? One great example of total customization is Deloitte Consulting’s “Senior Leaders Program.” The program, which received a lot of attention in the business media when it was first launched, is a bid to retain some of the firm’s best and brightest. How? By allowing them to customize their careers so they can work wherever, whenever, and however they are able to add value in the firm – but only the best and brightest over the age of fifty. It is reserved, like so many other privileges and rewards, for those in the firm who have paid their dues and climbed the ladder in tribute to the rites of the established hierarchy. Here’s the thinking: The typical retirement age for consultants is around fifty (because the work is so grueling). That’s when pensions vest and that’s when people have usually had just about enough. With the aging of the firm’s population (the number of partners reaching 50 is doubling over the next five years) and the general drain of talent afflicting the firm, Deloitte decided to retain some of their best talent the only way possible. “Restructure your job any way you want,” they are saying to their top partners. “Create your dream job.” And it’s working. After all, who would quit a dream job? Now, instead of losing many of their best and most seasoned partners, the firm will keep them indefinitely. They will be called upon when and where they are needed, and they will do the work at hand if they feel like it, negotiating appropriate fees for their services on an ongoing basis. What a great way to stem the tide of talent flowing out of your firm. Smart move. Many other companies have been tailoring flexible work arrangements to accommodate their best older workers. Monsanto, the massive life sciences company, and Prudential, the gigantic insurance firm, both use retirees as temporary workers to do everything from sophisticated technical jobs to answering phones. GE Global Exchange Services, a subsidiary of GE, hires retired engineers to service older systems still in use. Castle Harlan, the New York-based merchant bank and leveraged buyout firm, recruits retired top executives as board members and advisers for the companies it invests in. With the workforce aging and so much valuable knowledge and experience held by older workers, retirees are pioneering some of the most successful flexible work programs. Often, people at the tail end of their careers have a lot of negotiating power with potential employers because they don’t need to work and they have valuable skills to offer. For their part, employers tend to have a higher degree of trust in older workers – especially older workers who have had successful careers within the organization – and feel they can count on retirees to perform well even in non-traditional arrangements. What is more, older workers often have important institutional knowledge that must be passed on and their employers will employ them on any terms in order to get them to transfer that knowledge. Just as women spearheaded the work-life balance movement, the aging of the population and the resulting frequency of semi-retired work arrangements is showing employers just how successful custom work arrangements can be – and how valuable they are when it comes to winning battles in the talent wars. All of these semi-retirement programs are brilliant. But the leaders of these firms are wrong if they believe that they will continue to have a steady stream of people at the tail end of their one-size-fits-all career paths to funnel into these custom work arrangements. Anybody worth employing should be allowed to semi-retire – early and often. Let people create their dream jobs – on terms you and they negotiate together – and you’ll retain just about everybody. Plain and simple: Total career customization is the key to retention in the new economy. There Are Limits, Of Course Of course, not all work is amenable to every customization. Retail stores, for example, must be open certain hours on certain days. A grocery store cashier can’t very well work from home. “Come over to my house and I’ll sell you some groceries,” is just not feasible. A factory worker must be at the plant in order to use the assembly equipment. And so on. As always, you must approach every staffing issue by starting with the work that needs to be done. Examine every task and responsibility. Then ask yourself, does this need to be done in a particular building during certain hours? Sometimes the answer is yes – both time and place are non-negotiable elements of the work. But often, time or place, or both, are negotiable. And then there is room to customize – all that is left to do is negotiate the terms. When managers set about this process, they almost always find that, when examining a particular role, some tasks and responsibilities in a person’s job are flexible – especially as to time and place – while others are not. The job, therefore, often looks as if it cannot be customized. This is when it is necessary to unbundle the package of tasks and responsibilities that currently make up the job, rearrange the elements, and make a new package – a more flexible role. If a person is willing to continue working for you, for example, but only from home, you may have to adjust that person’s role so that it consists only of tasks that can be done from home. To achieve the desired effect, it is rarely necessary to customize 100% of every dimension that may or may not matter to them. Almost always, a particular individual has one or two dream job factors that really matter to him. Perhaps he has a child. It is simply undeniable that the needs of a child sometimes clash with the needs of an employer. What if the child is sick Tuesday morning and neither parent’s work schedule is free? Inevitably, work must come second for at least one parent that Tuesday morning. This sort of thing happens every day. The only question is this: Has the parent negotiated enough scheduling flexibility so that the parenting doesn’t compromise his success at work? Many people – regardless of whether they have children – have just a single scheduling issue that gets in their way. A small adjustment can have a tremendous impact. Sometimes the customization a person wants has to do with the work she is doing: One person hates telephone work, while another loves it. The right match between a person’s interests and her work can make the difference between a job that is “just a job” and one that is worthy of her very best efforts. No doubt, some of your employees will have needs that cannot be met. George Jones loves the company, but he is dying to work in Paris. You don’t have a Paris office. You are not going to be able to customize the job to his satisfaction. It’s okay. You can’t please everybody all the time. But often you can. One person wants to burn incense, another wants to play music, and still another wants to rearrange the furniture in his office. Who cares? To the person who does, the value of those slight accommodations will be immeasurable. Should people have to earn the custom features of their jobs? Of course. And they should keep earning them. Negotiate whatever terms make sense. When you make a deal, both sides are expected to deliver. And the deal is always open, changing over time as the organization’s needs change and the person’s availability and circumstances change. I should add this caveat: Sometimes performance problems will occur as you negotiate custom work situations. That’s because people can be wrong in their self-evaluations, just as employers can be wrong in their assumptions. An employee’s insistent, “I really want to work from home,” can turn into a plaintive, “I can’t concentrate at home…I just don’t end up getting my work done.” That doesn’t have to mean the whole deal is off; it just means the deal needs to be renegotiated. If the source of the performance problem is obvious (for example, since the person started working from home, his productivity has diminished substantially), then a smart manager will cut short the arrangement and renegotiate, making a deal that eliminates the problem causing factors. But that almost never happens. People are so thrilled, usually, to customize their work arrangements that they become very protective of the deal they’ve created for themselves. In a results-based relationship, where engagement and accountability are high, that self-protection almost always manifests itself in exceptional performance. Often people perform much better when they have flexible work arrangements because they don’t want any question to arise that might compromise their situation. That’s the explanation for common findings like those of Aetna, the giant insurance company based in Hartford Connecticut, where productivity levels increased by as much as 50% among 600 claims processing and member services staffers when they started working from home. When people work out their custom deals, they will work doubly hard to prove themselves and keep the deal in place. And they won’t be going to work anywhere else any time soon. Be a Change Leader As long as you have people who can get the work done, very well and very fast, don’t lose them. Think about what happens when somebody you really value comes into your office and says, “Thanks for everything, but I’m going to be leaving.” What do you say? “Is there anything I can do to keep you?” Isn’t that what you say? Here’s the problem: That conversation happens on the last day that person works for you, but it should happen on day one. “Welcome aboard, is there anything I can do to keep you?” And it should continue every single day. When you are about to lose a valued employee, instead of accepting the limitations of the dominant form of long-term employment, create a flexible solution that works for the organization and for the employee you need to keep-this type of solution is what I call a personal retention plan. Start planning long-term relationships with valued contributors around each individual’s unique life plan (not the other way around). Help people play to their strengths and interests and develop along those lines, and continue adding more and more value. Encourage them to “just grow” in their dream jobs – working for you. Forget “that’s not the way we do things around here,” and start doing things that way. You may have to be the one to break new ground. So what? One day at a time, as you are negotiating short-term pay for performance deals for the results you need, you should be negotiating the conditions of employment as well. Customize a deal for every person – value for value – around the roles they actually play (their tasks, responsibilities and projects) rather than positions on an organizational chart. At the very least, whenever you can possibly do it, grant people the slight adjustments they request. Even small efforts at customization go a long way. The best people will climb over each other to work for you. Disdain the old-fashioned rites of passage. You are not a feudal lord. You are a free market manager. Play that role aggressively and you are going to start winning the talent wars.

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