Leadership lessons: Make ’em stay!

Should I stay or should I go? Not only is that one of the best lines from a Clash song ever, but it’s what each of us asks ourselves from time to time when it comes to our jobs.

What is best for me and for my family? What are my future prospects? Am I appreciated? Does my work have meaning? Is my job keeping me healthy and happy — or is it killing me?

On the other side, leaders have to consider what’s best for the organization. And by default, that should include what’s best for most of the people in the organization. Sometimes what’s best for the many is not what’s best for the few — or for the individual.

When the needs of the organization fall out of sync with the needs and desires of the individual, what can you possibly do to keep them?

Well, nothing. Let them go. You need to replace them with people who fit your needs, too.

Leadership is about attracting and engaging willing followers. This means we’ve got to accept that there are some things we just can’t control. I could fill a page with good reasons someone might leave that you just can’t do anything about. Today let’s focus on what you can control.

What research says
Pew Research recently did a study to find out why so many people are so suddenly leaving their jobs. This gives us a very useful window into where we should be placing our best efforts as leaders to keep our best people. And for those people who will leave no matter what, let’s focus on what you can do to inspire their best efforts for as long as they’re with you.

Here are the reasons from the research:

  1. Pay was too low.
  2. No opportunity to advance.
  3. Felt disrespected at work.
  4. Because of child care issues.
  5. Not enough flexibility to choose when to put in hours.
  6. Benefits weren’t good.
  7. Wanted to relocate to a different area.
  8. Working too many hours.
  9. Working too few hours.
  10. Employer required a COVID vaccine.

Which of these factors can you control? Which are outside your control? More important —How do you know the difference?

Focus on #1. I’m picking on this because in our workshops, this is probably the factor most leaders say is out of their hands.

That might be true, but I’m thinking about one particular workshop where it became apparent that a little empathy and empowerment made all the difference.

What motivates?
One manager shared his frustration with trying to motivate younger people in his organization, in this case it was people in the Millennial generation. He had spent nearly two years crafting what he saw as an amazing compensation and incentive program. It wasn’t working.

I asked him how many Millennials worked on drafting this package. Thankfully, he was honest.


Turns out that his small committee was entirely comprised of senior leaders who were, to be kind, just living in a different century than the people they were trying to motivate.

Fortunately, there were several Millennials in this workshop. Long story short, we put some heads together to see how the package could be changed. Now I could go off on how inspiration is much more powerful than motivation, but I’ll save that for another day, or you can read "The Sensei Leader." For now, suffice it to say that flexibility and growth opportunities were much more inspiring to these younger managers than the attempt to motivate them with bribes in the form of raises, bonuses and incentives.

In short, they were much more interested in flex time and training than more money.

'No opportunities'
The point is that if you want to know what inspires people to stay…

Ask them.

Involve representatives of all key cohorts in the process. Get input from the front lines to the C-suite. Understand constraints and present them clearly but find out what people really need and want. You just might be surprised at how much they’re willing to give.

"No opportunities for advancement" might be another one where you feel you have little control. Once again, we’ve learned a lot from the remarkable leaders in our workshops.

There was a meme circulating on LinkedIn that asked, "What happens if you invest a lot in training someone — and they leave?"

The next line: "What happens if you don’t train them — and they stay?"

I’ll take it a step further. Train everyone in your organization for their next promotion. Whether it’s with you or not.

Focus on empowerment. As a leader, your success is determined by one thing and one thing only: The success of the people you serve.

You can’t always control whether someone will stay or go. But you do have a great deal of influence over how effective anyone is while they’re with you. If you want their best — give them what they need to succeed.

I don’t want to leave without addressing #3, "Felt disrespected at work."

If you have control over one of these conditions above all others, it’s this.

Are you building and nourishing a culture of respect? Are you walking the walk? That is, are you modeling the respectful behavior you expect from others?

Part of the problem is that respect is not usually a term that is clearly defined. Too many people see respect differently, and that causes people to feel disrespected whether it’s warranted or not.

Let me share the most powerful definition of respect I’ve ever heard. And it came from a third-grader.

One of the first times I was asked to share these ideas outside the dojo was when a local elementary school asked me to come and help them with a respect issue.

I still start most of our workshops and keynotes with the same question I asked this group of kids: "What does the word respect really mean?"

Of course, I had my carefully researched dictionary definition ready to roll when one young man stood up. I guess he’d been told "Sensei" was coming because he bowed! Then he said:

"Sensei. Respect means taking care of one another."

I felt like someone punched me in the gut! I actually had to sit down and catch my breath — and gather my thoughts. After what seemed to me like a long pause, all I could think to do was to stand up, return his bow and say, "I think you’ve got it!"

That’s it. I threw my stodgy definition away and from that moment forward, this young man’s words have been one of my guiding principles.

Think about the words of this amazing young person in the context of leadership. What is your primary job as a leader? Isn’t it, truly, to take care of people?

If this is a cliche, it’s only because it’s true. Take care of your people, and they’ll take care of you.

Take some time and work through PewResearch’s reasons people are leaving. If you’ve seen others, add to the list. Work through some possible responses through the lens of this beautiful definition of respect I just shared with you.

The plain truth is you can’t keep people from leaving. At least not some of them. But you just might find some ways not to chase them away. You might find ways to keep good people longer and enjoy the best efforts of people for as long as they’re with you.

Maybe, just maybe, that will put an end to this Great Resignation!


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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About the author
Jim Bouchard | President/Owner/C-Level

Jim Bouchard is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, executive mentor, and author. His books include “The Sensei Leader” and “Think Like a Black Belt.” You can connect with Jim on LinkedIn at http://linkedin.com/in/jimbouchard and contact him directly at [email protected]. Phone him at 207-751-4317.