Career Coach: The care and keeping of employees

By Joyce E.A. Russell
Monday, April 26, 2010

If you manage people, your primary goal is to keep them engaged and productive. After all, people are any firm's most critical resource. There are a number of industries concentrated in the Washington region, and you need to give your best people a reason to stay with your organization instead of jumping ship to your competitor as the economy improves.

Suppose your business is in the defense contractor or global security industry. You can bet that companies such as Lockheed Martin, SAIC, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and others are all working hard to retain the top talent they have. So, how do they do it?

As a manager, you need to give your team opportunities to develop their talents and grow. The development opportunities you offer are also a great draw to attract the best new talent, especially with younger generations of workers. And as baby boomers retire, you'll need a strong bench ready to assume top roles.

Some of the most effective development opportunities are those that really push employees outside of their comfort level -- "stretch" assignments that require someone to manage and negotiate change, influence others or forge coalitions. These assignments require employees to learn new skills and pose significant challenges, which become motivating factors that those employees channel as they develop into new managers.

So what's your role as manager?

1. Assess current assignments: Work with employees to gauge how challenging their jobs are in terms of potential learning experiences. They can think about how their jobs are contributing to their personal development, how they can take better advantage of on-the-job learning opportunities, and what strategies they can use to get the most out of a specific experience. Use this to create a development plan for the employee.

2. Open doors: Create an environment in which stretch assignments are valued and in which people are given access to them. These stretch assignments include dealing with unfamiliar responsibilities, managing problems with other employees, taking on more responsibilities, handling external pressure from customers, or working across cultures. Give employees small doses of these stretch assignments in current responsibilities or temporary assignments. Or have an employee move into a different role in the firm to develop that skill.

3. Give feedback: Employees need quality performance feedback or they won't know what they are doing right or specific areas in which they need to improve. Enhance the development quality of the job assignments by building in a review process. Have seasoned execs tell young managers their war stories about challenges and what worked and didn't. Institute a 360-degree review process that gives employees an opportunity to receive feedback from all levels -- even those outside their department or function area.

4. Nurture learning: Create an active learning environment for employees. Set up breakfast or lunch meetings among employees who have faced similar challenges. Give employees access to courses to enhance their learning. Make sure learning is linked to your firm's strategic goals.

5. Make it interesting: Increase the variety of experiences for employees and put them in challenging jobs that teach them how to cope with pressure and ambiguity, learn quickly, or deal with difficult subordinates. You can invent ways to provide small challenges to high-potential employees early on, before the stakes get too high. Provide projects, coaching or training courses, or encourage off-the-job leadership development through engagement with a professional organization, nonprofit, or even coaching a Little League team.

6. Mentoring: Provide employees with an active mentoring program, whether formal or informal. Mentors can encourage prot?g?s to experiment and learn from successes and failures.

7. Top talent tops the list: Not all individuals learn equally well from challenging assignments, and some resist or avoid unfamiliar opportunities. Focus on developing employees who seek out developmental feedback and are motivated by opportunities to build their competence.

Joyce E.A. Russell is a Ralph H. Tyser Distinguished Teaching Fellow at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at

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