The Retention Champions

The race to keep your brightest employees is as cutthroat as ever. It’s up to some hidden organizational heroes to help seal the deal.

By Beverly Kaye, Ph.D., and Lindy Williams

No matter how many long hours and sleepless nights you’ve devoted to carefully wording questions, ensuring distribution schedules are met, and designing creative ways to raise participation rates, here’s some sobering news: Even the best surveys don’t make talent stay. They’re simply tools in engagement and talent strategies. In fact, if the content isn’t relevant or the followup isn’t effective, survey processes can produce backlash that feeds disengagement.

While we’re at it, inspirational leaders aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, either. Yes, leaders at the top levels of the organization can rally the troops and describe a vision for the future that energizes the workforce and ignites a will to win. But when c-suite residents aren’t on stage or reaching out, employees are dealing with day-to-day challenges in environments that may not embody that same level of enthusiasm.

And taken further, the disconnects between an inspired vision and an uninspired employee experience can lead to discontent and erode leaders’ credibility.

One more hard truth: You can read all the books and blogs you want about building a great place to work—where employees want to show up and bring their best—but it’s not enough. Webinars and conferences may be able to help you create a workspace that encourages performance, develops talent, and establishes norms of cooperation, inclusion, and customer service, but the question inevitably arises: How do you maintain and sustain that workplace you’ve worked so hard to create?

The answer is leveraging all of the above—surveys, leadership, inclusive workspaces—but also pulling out the secret weapon that’s hiding in plain sight: your retention champions.

Meet the Heroes Who Walk Among Us

As superheroes of the retention race, champions focus on keeping your organization’s retention strategy alive and well in the places where it counts most—in cubicles, on the shop floor, within teams, and inside conference rooms. If your strategy isn’t alive in the corners and the break rooms, it won’t stand the test of time and produce the outcomes you need.

Retention champions aren’t substitutes for leaders and managers, who have very specific and crucial roles in retaining talent. Those roles don’t change. Instead, retention champions are additive. They offer perspectives through different lenses and vantage points. Their superpowers include the ability to view strategy efforts through the lens of the individual contributor as well as the owners and key players in the processes designed to deliver meaningful employee experiences.

They add context and color to survey data. They activate organizational messaging through dialogue and interaction with the talent that strategies are built to retain. They keep an eye on what’s happening, where things are on track, and where things may be starting to stray off course.

They keep a steady hand on the tactical components of the retention strategy and have the ability to swoop in to save a drifting effort, intervene if a key player begins to disconnect, or analyze why a team’s engagement is unraveling.

Retention champions become the glue that connects your strategy to the results—your intention to your reality. They’re the connective tissue that lets retaining talent become a fundamental piece of the organizational fabric. So how do you find them?

Step #1: Set the Ground Rules

Ideally, we would love to believe every single HR professional is a retention champion. And maybe that’s true to some degree. But read any comic book and you know that not all heroes have or need the same sets of powers. It’s best to look for those who stand out from the crowd in some key ways.

First, retention champions are clear about why they stay with the organization. They have examined their own reasons for engaging with the company’s values and mission. They know why they get up every day to lean in to what the organization stands for and to do what they can to achieve their parts of goals and objectives.

Second, these champions recognize every individual brings his or her unique needs to the workplace. They don’t assume that what drives them to perform matches others’ motivations. They respect differences. They welcome diversity of thought and show appreciation for styles that may not mirror the traditional approaches.

Retention champions connect with people. Although some may demonstrate very extroverted behaviors and interact comfortably with groups, others may be masters of the quieter, one-to-one interactions. Whether they build relationships via a social and outgoing style, a subtle and calm approach, or some mix of the two, the key is that the champions are successful at building trust with others on a direct basis, eyeball to eyeball or ear to ear.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, retention champions must be more than just experts in the organization’s retention and engagement strategy. They must be true believers in the strategy and purpose behind it. Their knowledge and understanding must go deeper, enabling them to articulate benefits beyond just those to be gained by the company or department. They need to be prepared to answer the question, “Why should I stay?” even if it isn’t asked.

Step #2: Choose Your Champions

The best champions live in places where their views are both inside and out. They design, implement, and often manage the processes that address the needs of the resource repeatedly touted to be the most important: the employees. And they operate in the same spaces and breathe the same air as those you want and need to retain. They split their time between the walls of HR and the halls of the business. HR professionals operate across levels because they know the executive suite isn’t immune to disengagement.

HR pros reach into the frontline that too often can be a breeding ground for the creeping vines of disengagement. And they’re savvy enough to recognize that the massive middle—that layer residing between the c-suite and the frontline—is an essential connection in the retention equation. While the search for champions ultimately should reach into all corners of the organization, the starting block may be placed strategically right there in HR.

Of course, you must not limit the potential recruiting of retention champions to the usual suspects—the HR business partners who interact regularly with their internal clients. While some in that group would no doubt be perfect for the champion role, remember that your HR function is probably rife with undiscovered potential champions.

Look in compensation. Review the players in your recruiting and acquisition areas. Talk to the people who administer the performance management process. HR, after all, stands for “human” resources. There are humans throughout the function who could reach out as champions and, in the process, bring back valuable information that can inform your strategy, strengthen and improve your systems, and build relationships that feed retention. It’s a win all around.

Step #3: Prepare Your Picks

As the race car driver Bobby Unser once said, “Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” The time you spend training your champions to seize the opportunities that emerge within the strategy will be time well invested.

Strategy inside and out: Give your champions time to soak in the organization’s retention strategy and question the leaders and owners of the strategy. Help them learn what’s beneath the words. Arrange an open forum and line of communication for the champions to deepen their grasp of the history of the strategy, the progress that’s been made, and the expectations for the future.

Your champions need to be fully immersed in the why, what, and how of your strategy. A simple read of the official documentation won’t cut it.

Span and scope: Champions will need to know where they’ll be deployed, what spaces and places they’ll cover, and how long they’ll be on assignment. The parameters will vary depending upon the status of the strategy and the groups involved, but framing these factors up front minimizes confusion in the future.

Approach and accountability: Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Allow for flexibility regarding how your champions will become informed about and interact with the areas they’re covering. Be clear about how you plan to measure the success of the mission at the organization and the individual level.

Work together to identify how you’ll introduce the role to the teams that will be a part of the effort. If the retention champion or the groups the champion is deployed to help are unclear, uncertain, or uninformed about the mission, it’s doomed. Champions who are viewed as partners will be positioned to succeed.

Signs and signals: Agree on how and when you’ll communicate. When you establish a method and guidelines for what triggers a direct-line phone call versus a short email or chat during a regular follow-up meeting, you’ll keep communication lines open, available, and manageable.

All of these duties make the retention champion role sound like a full-time job. But here’s why it isn’t: The processes that HR owns and delivers form the backbone of the employee experience, from the nuts and bolts of compensation to the professional learning experience of L&D.

The retention champion who remains involved in the essence of the HR world and builds one-to-one, retention-focused relationships throughout the organization develops a perspective that encompasses the science and art of the workspace.

Step #4: Train Them to Be Trustworthy

Trust is essential to the role of the retention champion. If it’s broken, the champion’s powers diminish immediately. Ever see what happens when Superman becomes exposed to Kryptonite?

If a champion is perceived to be a mole planted in the group to dig up dirt and report back to leadership, the effort will fail. Champions aren’t in place to find employees who are deemed guilty of being disengaged. They’re successful when they build relationships that make engagement the better option for reasons that resonate with the individual employee.

Retention champions can serve as the mortar between the bricks of your strategy only when they’re trusted by their colleagues at all levels.

Step #5: Start Here … or There

Retention champions who meet the criteria described in Step #1 very often simply know where to start. They sense it. They know the spaces that need them most, such as the pocket of the organization where performance is high and voluntary attrition is low.

There is a solid and maybe even surprising pull for team members to remain in place. Champions can learn a lot as they identify the factors that are making the space inviting and productive.

Another great starting point: a team struggling to survive multiple departures of key people. In this case, the retention champion has rich opportunities to uncover and address what’s needed—or present and detrimental.

Then there’s the newly created, freshly formed team that’s just beginning to gel and connect, which offers the retention champion a chance to help shape the space in the most meaningful and effective ways. And if employee resource groups exist in your organization, a retention champion could be a powerful addition to every group or team.

As a guest or full member, the champion can help the group clarify understanding of HR processes and provide a connection across groups or functions.

Step #6: Define Your Wins

Unlike most races, this one has multiple finish lines. For the practitioners who step up to take on the retention champion role, there are unique opportunities to learn.

For example, they’ll gain exposure to individuals across functions, teams, and levels that may not be open to them in their current roles. The experience offers a method for expanding perspectives, deepening understanding of the overall organization, and widening their professional networks.

For leaders and teams striving to achieve their goals, our retention hero provides added support, a source of regular encouragement, and input and energy that didn’t exist before.

As for the larger organization, the retention champion is boots on the ground, getting a firsthand look into where the retention strategy lives and how it breathes. This provides an opportunity for continuous improvement.

With the right champions in place, everyone wins.

Beverly Kaye, Ph.D., is the recipient of the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Talent Development. She is the coauthor of Love ’Em or Lose ’Em, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, and Up is Not the Only Way.

Lindy Williams is a designer and consultant for Talent Dimensions, which specializes in retention. She is the coauthor of Up is Not the Only Way.