How to Retain Talent: Or How I Accepted Role Growth & Began to Love Hiring
It’s taken eight weeks, thousands of CVs, two rounds of interviews, the one that got away and so many hours you, frankly, ran out of numbers, but you’ve finally found the perfect hire and managed to get them to sign on the dotted line!
They’re a delight throughout your two-week onboarding process, they fly through the month-long training and fit into the team perfectly, making great suggestions from day one. Job done, mission accomplished, pats on the back all round.
And then they ask for a private meeting. Alarm bells start ringing. You sit there: waiting; wondering; worried. In they walk, envelope in hand and bang! They’re gone. They’ve resigned. “An opportunity came up”, they say, “they weren’t even looking”.
Back to square one…
Whilst it’s fantastic to see a team member grow and advance in their career, in terms of business investment it can be a real gut-punch when that new superstar suddenly up-sticks.
It’s a hiring manager’s nightmare and a surprisingly common occurrence. A huge number of companies we’ve contacted or worked with suffered from retention issues, particularly with more junior roles. After all, it’s one thing getting them through the door, that part has a clear method, but getting them to stay often feels like black magic.
Obviously, in an ideal world you’d be able to offer every incentive, undercut the competition and just be the kind of place someone would be mad to ever consider leaving. But in reality, that won’t be the case; even for the likes of Google, company retention problems can rear their ugly head for surprising reasons.
As a result, the market is full of ideas on how to keep hold of employees. These vary a lot from company to company, but common ones include:
- Creating new, subsidiary roles or levels of seniority. After all, the more rungs the ladder has the longer it takes to climb.
- Inventing new titles to appease staff with wanderlust.
- Employing rolling, incremental increases in pay or holiday as incentives to stick around.
- Keeping people invested by over promising, constantly claiming “it’ll happen next year”.
Obviously that last one is clearly not going to work for all that long, but they all have flaws. People aren’t idiots and whilst a new title or switching from Mid to Senior can feel beneficial, especially if combined with a slight pay rise or similar benefit, over time these systems can also become restrictive.
Worse still, whilst they can help pull one staff member back from the brink of leaving, if implemented without clarity or full consideration, they can become toxic. Switch someone's role title enough times and they’ll begin to see it as superfluous; withhold key benefits for long enough and you’ll be met with frustrations; reward time employed over skill and you’ll push away your best staff.
After all, we hear about retention problems from both sides. On the one hand we have companies telling us that they struggle to keep top talent engaged; on the other we get first-hand stories from applicants about the frustrations of the role that they’re leaving.
A recent discussion with a potential applicant I was privy to went something like this:
Applicant: Just so you know, I’m applying for a role at my current employer as well.
Me: That’s fine, but can I ask why you’re also looking elsewhere?
A: Well, whilst I’d be happy to take that role, they basically created it for a colleague of mine. She’s a little more superior in terms of time with the company, but we’re about on par from a skills perspective. I know they’ve only created the role so they can give her a pay raise without attracting attention, but I’m worried that she’ll end up as my line manager.
M: And why would that be a problem?
A: We work well together, but I know what her knowledge level is and don’t believe she’ll be able to challenge me. I feel like, if she gets the role, I’ll end up stuck doing all the menial tasks unable to progress myself until she or our current manager move on, which doesn’t look likely.
By having an employee retention strategy that states “after x many years you get an increase in seniority”, this company has created an environment which feels alienating. They’ve also caused a long term problem because, at some point, all the vacant “levels” will be filled, so what do they do then?
Rather than seeking to postpone talent loss, we’d suggest focusing on the cause of it. There are many ways to find out, with the exit interview being a key strategy, but we can give you a head start and say that a big one is simply stagnation.
We’ve all been there: that feeling that every day is the same, you’ve done it all before and nothing’s new or challenging any more (and if you haven’t, congratulations, we’re all very jealous).
People like to feel valued, but if they only ever do the same five tasks in rotation then praise begins to feel silly. They like to be challenged, but if their daily to-do list just becomes rinse and repeat that that’s clearly lacking. They like to get something back from the time they invest at work, and whilst a salary is clear, direct remuneration, it doesn’t scratch that particularly human itch that is personal growth.
And that, right there, is the key: personal growth. It’s genuinely that simple. For too long, companies and managers have used fake titles and incremental pay rises as a band-aid, but both eventually hit a dead end. You either run out of money, or you end up with a company filled with Seniors without any Mid, Junior or Entry level positions left and nowhere else to turn.
Adding personal or skills growth to a role is an easy way to alleviate that problem. Sure, as employees become more skilled they probably will begin to take on more seniority within a team (and demand a larger salary as a result), but development trajectories allow a clearly defined path and reward structure that can be predicted, planned for and actioned fairly.
It becomes much more democratic. If a new hire knows, from day one, what they need to do in order to progress in a company, increase responsibility or advance their influence, then it takes a lot of stress and guesswork out of, well, work.
In turn, that means that a new employee that rapidly becomes indispensable can rise up in parallel with their actual company value, whilst others that are content to stay where they are won’t feel hard done by. As long as everyone has equal access to skills growth, rewarding initiative becomes part of the system. If someone wants it, they know what to do to get it and nobody should be able to complain about it when it happens.
"Don’t want to take our word for it? How about taking my word for it instead! Before I joined Talent Point, I worked in a role which implemented these exact strategies and it had a direct impact on retention. I can say that with certainty, because I was the retention success.
After a year in the role I had hit my personal wall; there was nowhere for me to grow vertically in my team and I’d begun to feel like every issue I was handed was one that I’d already solved before. I was actively looking for other job opportunities.
Then the CEO called an all-team meeting and explained that the company had (unbeknownst to me) decided to implement a new internal structure, combined with PDPs (Personal Development Plans) for all employees.
In a later one-on-one meeting, my line manager showed that my personal path had been mapped towards a whole new project, with a wealth of new skills growth deliberately built in. As part of that, they went through my current skills levels – now fully graded against my peers – and highlighted areas they would support me in improving, as well as the levels I needed to achieve new seniority positions or pay raises.
Whilst the content of my job didn’t change that much straight away, I had been given a clear plan and goals to work towards that aligned with my own interests and career desires. I cancelled the job search and stayed with that company for a further two years, only leaving when life dictated a move across the country.
It was a major learning experience for me and highlighted the importance of clear growth paths and structured development in a role. Now, I’d only consider taking a job if it had some form of development system in place, and that was a very big part of what caught my eye at Talent Point. The job ad I saw for my current role was filled with potential, not just for my employer or my career but for me, personally, and I couldn’t be happier as a result!"
Building Growth into a Role
So it sounds great, but how do you actually go about doing it? If you’re working on a new hire, the simplest path is to take a look at the current job requirements and really dissect them.
Are there any skills you’re asking for which aren’t immediately necessary, particularly where an existing team member could provide mentorship? If there are, these can be shifted from being seen as a “must have” to a potential gain, immediately providing skills growth for the role.
Alternatively, think about the tools or tech stack that you use. What parts are particularly modern or desirable? Are you currently requiring all applicants to already have used these? If so, could they instead have experience with an older or different tool/technology in a similar vein and be offered cross-training opportunities instead? This can be a huge win for people who’ve become stuck with outdated experience but who clearly have the abilities and relevant skills to switch quickly.
Once you’ve done that, make sure it’s visible and clearly outlined on the job posting, including ideas of timeframes. Think it’ll take a new hire four months to cross-train into a new framework? Say so and build that into the role.
A little unclear on how best to go about it? We do it all the time, so here’s a microstudy in how one of our Account Directors, Tej, helped one customer attract better hires despite a restrictive budget:
“The customer needed to rapidly expand the QA function, but the budget was competitive rather than jaw-dropping, so attracting top talent was troublesome. We helped the customer realign their requirements, putting the focus on potential for the role, allowing us to offset the salary with attractive personal development instead.
In particular, we identified two major benefits: the company was growing globally and embracing automation at scale. They were already upskilling existing team members, so why not extend it to new hires as well?
Automation is a desirable, modern skill that is increasingly important for QAs to have, so whilst it creates a steep learning curve for new hires, when they come out the other side they have a great skill set. It turned a potential blocker into a benefit.
Plus, international expansion means a growing team, so we made sure there was a clear path for success. New hires know exactly how to be in the right position next time a new team is created, and the customer is well prepared with inhouse skills before they need them. It’s win-win, and it worked!”
Not everything needs to be done in-house either. Offering specific courses or training regimes, particularly if they come with industry recognised certification such as AWS, if a great incentive for new hires, plus it can easily be rolled out to existing teams as well.
Even if you don’t have any clear skills deficits or training paths, role growth could be easy to identify. Is the team or company growing rapidly? Make sure you have processes in place to look for internal advancement opportunities and let potential applicants know about them.
If all else fails, give the team a development budget and let new hires know how to use it. Being able to fund self-improvement through conferences, online courses or other resources is a fantastic employment benefit to offer and has the added benefit of easily highlighting those employees with clear drive. After all, a desire for self-learning is prevalent amongst tech sector job seekers!
But What About Those Perfect Candidates?
Let’s take a look at a possible scenario: you’ve created a fantastic role with ample room for growth, and then a unicorn appears. She’s everything you need and has all the extra skills you’ve shifted into your benefits section, plus she’s under budget. You still hire her, right?
Well, maybe yes, but maybe no. Sure, she’ll certainly save you time, money and effort as she’ll be an effective team member from day one. But let’s not forget the problem we’re trying to solve: retention. If she’s got nowhere to grow, then what’s going to keep her around?
Plus, if you really think about it, someone trying to get a job they can already do with one arm tied behind their back could be a bit of a red flag. Most employers want engaged, driven staff that will not only do their work but help push their team, function or company forward. Someone that’s content with BAU may not be the best fit.
That definitely shouldn’t mean an instant rejection, but you might proceed with caution. Invite them in for a face-to-face and be direct. Ask them why they want the role, what they feel they’ll be getting out of it and what excites them about their potential duties. They could have a very valid reason; perhaps they’ve got a young family and are actually looking for a stable role they know they will enjoy. If they give a clear and well thought out answer then they’re a safe bet and probably well worth bringing on board.
Keep in mind that the more hard skills you build into a development plan, and the longer it spans, the more time an employee will be guaranteed to be engaged.
But a lot of the time they simply may not have considered it. It could be that they lack experience, or they’re just trying to escape a bad job by any means necessary, but if they have no growth potential with your team then it’s worth highlighting early. Sometimes it won’t matter, sometimes it will cause them to rethink. Sure, it might set you back a week or so with the hiring process, but that’s a lot better then losing six months of training and investment when they decide that something better has come up.
Job Seekers, Listen Up!
Here’s the thing: this cuts both ways! If you’re reading this article whilst thinking about switching jobs, or are actively searching already, make sure you’re considering role growth when applying. The best employers will already be on it, but some may not have thought about it themselves, so set it as a priority to ask.
As a job seeker, you’re not just looking for the next pay cheque or a change of scenery, you’re looking for the next step in your career. You can absolutely achieve that with a simple step-up, but it’s better to find a role with a clear path to keep providing those career steps well into the future. After all, it’s not just hiring managers that dislike people leaving roles: no one enjoys job hunting either!
If the job specification you’re reading doesn’t cover any personal development goals, it may not serve you that well in the long term. If training, skills growth or similar objectives are not clearly outlined then make sure you ask the question at interview. It doesn’t just make sure that you’ll have room to grow within the role, it’ll also highlight to the interviewer that you care, which can be massively beneficial in standing out from the competition.
At the end of the day, your new role should be one that you’re excited for and challenged by. That could mean a clear progression in terms of seniority, or a budget for self-development, or an inbuilt training regime, but finding a position which keeps you engaged is important. It’ll make work a happier environment and mean that you’re gaining benefits far beyond the pay cheque.
Role Growth: It Works
We know it does, because we get companies to do it all the time. Whilst working a hiring campaign we’ll frequently advise on skills or tools that can be built in as areas for learning and development.
Quite often, these will have previously been listed as “nice to haves” or, at times, even role requirements, despite having a mature internal structure for cross-training or upskilling in place. By shifting these into role growth options we can attract a broader pool of applicants who get clear benefits from taking the position, making them far more engaged and excited from day one.
At that point, having clear growth paths within a role doesn’t just become a tool for increasing employee retention, it becomes a powerful weapon in attracting hires to begin with.
After all, there’s little reason in us finding you a fantastic hire if they leave in less than a year; whilst that might bring you back to us, it also means we’ve failed in our job of finding you an employee, not just a temporary worker.