Why Staff-Culture Leadership Means More Now

Turnover remains high, which is a drain on productivity both for your staff and your members. To keep your people, look at what keeps them engaged.

The churn continues.

This may be the year that COVID-19 restrictions fully ease, the hybrid office settles, and the supply-chain crisis dissipates. But for now, all those challenges remain in place, and it’s having an impact on retention. A recent report in The New York Times found that the number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs “has slowly been declining in recent months, but it is still far higher than before the pandemic.”

The Times report noted that the trend has especially gummed up the gears in the service sector. Because businesses have to dedicate more time to filling vacancies and training up new workers, operations are slower. Overall productivity dips, and revenue declines aren’t far behind. The owner of a chain of pizza restaurants told the Times that for now, that the fix “is to focus on training and to recognize that new hires won’t be as productive as 10-year veterans right away.”

Compensation, in itself, doesn’t generate engagement.

An alternate approach is to try to make sure you don’t lose those veterans in the first place, which is where a lot of year-end discussions have landed. The National Association of Corporate Directors’ 2023 Governance Outlook report, released last month, put a spotlight on what it calls “people-related stewardship” as a key leadership need in the coming year. That can focus on matters of compensation and professional development, but it involves soft skills too. One bullet point from the report noted that corporate board members are “reviewing and setting strategy on compensation, succession, and culture.”

That trend is happening in the nonprofit sector as well. Recently, two executives at Leading Edge, an organization supporting Jewish nonprofits, wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about the importance of building employee engagement around matters that go beyond compensation. Salaries are important, they note; they establish a baseline for people feeling like they have value in an organization. But compensation, in itself, doesn’t generate engagement. That comes from a sense of motivation that makes you want to stick around and do your job well. A focus (or lack of it) on well-being, communication, confidence in leadership, and other cultural factors are all, they wrote, “directly correlated … to productivity, profitability, employee turnover, workplace accidents, absenteeism, product quality, and more.”

Whether your association leads restaurant workers, CPAs, or data scientists, the same need for a sense of belonging applies—and similar economic factors that prompt people to move on are in play. There’s no easy solution to the churn problem, but the NACD report notes that more organizations are paying attention to employees’ career paths and well-being factors. They’re looking at matters such as “hiring effectiveness,” “succession planning,” and “flexible work alignment and access,” as well as absenteeism, presenteeism (i.e., “quiet quitting”), stress, emotional health, DEI, trust in leadership, and more. 

That’s a lot. But as the authors of the Stanford Social Innovation Review article point out, clear communication from leaders that they recognize their peoples’ needs can go a long way to addressing churn and the dispiriting environment it can create. “Trusted leaders, good communication, and a sense that the organization truly cares about employees as people … go beyond fixing what’s wrong and build organizational cultures that are actively right.”

What retention strategies have worked in your organization? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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