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Retaining Your Best People
by Dan Carrison and Rod Walsh


A popular song during World War I expressed a significant cultural shift in America. Entitled, "How do you keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Pa-ree?", the light hearted ditty actually described an awakening of American youth, who, upon returning from the war in Europe, had no interest in resuming their lives on the family farm. They moved to the dynamic "big city," instead. This demographic shift signaled the end of the family farm in even more profound ways than did the Industrial Revolution.

A similar shift has been taking place for the last generation, or so, in the business world: the day of the "company man" is over.

Many of us can remember a relative who worked for one company his or her entire working life, ending up with little more than a gold watch upon retirement. That watch may have been the only gesture of gratitude made by the respective company, throughout our grandfathers' or grandmothers' careers. That's because the company of eighty years ago could depend upon the American culture, itself, to keep our grandparents in place. A self respecting citizen was expected to remain with one company for an entire career, barring some unforeseen circumstance, such as bankruptcy of the organization. Those who spent a mere decade with one company before moving on were considered job hoppers with unstable employment histories.

Today, no company can depend on the surrounding culture to keep its employees "down on the farm." Business magazines, talk show hosts, and career consultants are telling us that a person who works for one organization for decades has misplaced loyalty, at best, or is without personal ambition and afraid to leave his or her comfort zone, at worst - we can only imagine that no one got around to telling this to Jack Welch.

Senior management must have an awakening of its own, and realize that its best employees are at risk every day of the week. Not only are competitors trying to steal them away, the very culture in which they thrive is encouraging them to move on. Virtually every business guru is exhorting the upwardly mobile aspirant to jump from one company to another, with each step being higher than the last. Career consultants advise even the happy employee to interview frequently, in order to gain a real-time measure of his or her worth in the marketplace. Those of us who are disposed to feel loyalty to the company are encouraged to look upon ourselves as free agents; after all, we are reminded, the organization would lay us off without blinking an eye. The modern company would be wise to realize its vulnerability, and never let up on its efforts to retain it best personnel.

The first step towards retaining one's top performers is to realize that they could be gone tomorrow. That cheerful, loyal super star, whom you love like a son or daughter, and who has never given any indication of dissatisfaction with the company, may already be composing the resignation letter. When he, or she, comes in with the bad news, it is too late to persuade them to stay; commitments have already been made. At that point, you may remind yourself that everyone is "replaceable." But then, when you consider the cost to replace, and retrain, that top performer, it seems disproportionately high. Suppose he took a few of his key customers with him, over to the competition? Suppose she brought along, in her train, a couple of loyal staff members? Yes, everyone is replaceable, but wouldn't it be nice to keep them, and to prevent this unnecessary injury to your company?

Retaining the cream of the crop does not necessarily mean raising salaries, or increasing the perks. For proof, one only has to look at the Marine Corps. With the fewest perks of all the armed forces, and the most Spartan living conditions, the Marines nevertheless have the highest reenlistment rate. They not only attract the best, they are able to retain the best. Now, either Marines are crazy, or senior management knows what it's doing.

While reserving the former proposition as a distinct possibility, let us examine the latter. There may be no other organization in which senior management tells its membership so frequently, just how important it is - to the Corps, to the country, to the community. The Marine Corps is an organization essentially composed of minimum wage employees, yet the individual Marine considers it an honor to belong. Not only did he or she have what it took to become one of the Few and the Proud, he or she still has what it takes to remain -- to reenlist for another tour of duty, when it is common knowledge that more money can be made on the "outside." Rather than telling them how "replaceable" they are, the organization has convinced these Marines that the Corps would be diminished by their leaving. Out of love for the organization, the cream of the crop stay. These men and women realize that the very qualities which would make them such valuable assets to a corporation are needed by the brotherhood which has accepted them.

Can that sense of commitment and obligation be created in today's corporations? By all means - if one does it the Marine Corps way. To begin: create in the candidate a feeling of gratitude for being accepted into the best company in the industry. [And if you don't believe you are in the best company, go find it.] Then create a sense of mission that will sustain your employee on the job and off the job, so that he or she will be less susceptible to competitive offers. And, don't forget to reach out to the "other half" of the workplace-the families of your employees; include them often at corporate celebrations, so that support for your organization runs deep. And, finally, never assume your top performers will remain; keep up the drum beat, and make them proud to be a part of the best company the industry has to offer.


The Authors


Dan Carrison and Rod Walsh have authored an insightful book revealing the leadership principles of the U.S. Marine Corps. Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way is a lively and practical 'manual' for business managers and executives to lead their department or enterprise to victory.  Visit Semper Fi Consulting for more articles and information on their highly acclaimed keynotes and seminars!

Many more articles in Mission Ready in The CEO Refresher Archives
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Copyright 2002 by Dan Carrison and Rod Walsh. All rights reserved.

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