How Leaders Can Improve Retention 

Keeping good people will be a growing challenge in 2024, reports say. Meaningful benefits and supportive leaders can help.

As the new year kicks in, we seem to be back to Great Resignation chatter—some research metrics show that a lot of workers are itchy to move somewhere else. The Conference Board CHRO Confidence Index, released last month, found that more HR leaders expect retention to decrease, and fewer expect retention levels to improve. Similarly, another survey by consulting firm esphr by WorkNest found that retention has become the top concern for HR leaders, with 36 percent citing it as their “key challenge for the new year.” (Recruitment is close behind at 30 percent.)

Naturally, this poses a concern for association leaders on two fronts. The association’s own staff requires attention, for one—no leader wants to lose their best people. But as a the lead advocate for their association’s industry, leaders can see the drain in resources as a broader, more strategic challenge—how are you ensuring that your members remain engaged in the industry, and feel like they can progress and grow within it?

Some of that, of course, will depend on the economics unique to your association. But a sense of engagement cuts across all industries, and the engagement problem is pronounced too—the Conference Board survey sees increased weakness there.

If a leader stifles their progress, they’ll take their ball to another court.

Greg Alexander

The ways to address lack of engagement at work are myriad, but two reports suggest a couple of ways to begin looking at the problem. One is to explore how well your organization looks after staff (and member) well-being. Here, the C-suite gets it wrong to an almost comical degree. According to a 2023 report by Deloitte Insights, more than three quarters of C-suite leaders believe that employees’ mental, physical, social, and financial well-being improved in the past year, but only around 30 percent of workers say that’s actually the case

The disconnect isn’t due to lack of effort on leaders part—a substantial majority of firms offer well-being benefits, and workers do use them. But dissatisfaction stems “largely because those benefits aren’t aligned with employees’ actual needs or because the organization doesn’t effectively communicate the availability of well-being benefits,” according to the report.

Minding well-being is one path to better retention. A look in the mirror might be another. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, author and consultant Greg Alexander discussed the problem of the “bottleneck boss” a leader who stifles employee progress through micromanagement and a refusal to delegate. That breeds discontent: “If a leader stifles their progress, they’ll take their ball to another court,” he writes. “In fact, study after study has shown that ‘lack of advancement’ is one of the most compelling reasons that professionals resign.”

In the new year, it’s worth looking at how your leadership style and wellness-benefit structure serves your people. That’s true for staff, who look to the C-suite for assurance that their talents are appreciated and acknowledged. And it’s true of members as well, who want to know that their association is structured to support their progress in the profession. Is the credentialing and certification program fit-for-purpose for the profession today? Are meetings and networking opportunities designed to bring out their best? The numbers suggest that many people are itching to move along; the reasons for that, and the means for preventing it, start at the top. 


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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