Is the grass greener because it's better, or did you not take the time to water your side?

Is the grass greener because it's better, or did you not take the time to water your side?

Everyone talks about building a relationship with your customer. I think you build one with your employees first.
— Angela Ahrendts, SVP - Apple Retail - Apple, Inc.

I started with my current firm right out of college on September 13, 2004 – 4,219 days ago, which makes me, well “ancient”. It is the only company I have ever known, but it is NOT the only job I have ever known – a very important distinction.  We live in a day-in-age where ‘loyalty’ is defined by anything longer than 3 years (so sad, but true).  Some call it a “generational” issue, others merely say that “professional growth” is inherently self-limited by staying in the same place too long – the idea that you reach a plateau if you are not consistently putting yourself in new situations with new people.

The fear of plateauing and the associated pay raises often more-than-offset the ‘tangible’ transition costs of moving jobs.  So it is no shock that the average Millennial with 10-years of work experience likely has had three-plus different employers.  Unfortunately for employers, employee churn is incredibly expensive – not only are there hard costs, but there are other costs (like culture) that are very relevant but can never actually be quantified no matter how cool the chart in the PowerPoint deck looks that gives you some ‘magical number’.  Culture is one of those intangibles that suffers the most within the ever-present ‘revolving-door’ of today’s workforce.

Let me be clear, the journey of my 4,219 days has not been all ‘rainbows and unicorns’.  There have been many times where I have questioned my own sanity for staying-the-course as I have watched a lot of incredibly talented colleagues and friends take their skills to the ‘greener’ side of the fence.

I subscribe to the idea of ‘FLEXIBILITY’ as a fundamental principle to build employee loyalty.  When I say ‘flexibility’, I am not referring to the ability to telecommute, unlimited PTO, or any of the work-life balance items that are table-stakes for many companies today and win you a spot on Fortune's Best Whatever List.  I am actually talking about flexibility in the context of encouraging, allowing, and supporting employees to explore new avenues without actually leaving.  Here are 4 examples of ‘flexibility’ that I believe have kept my 4,219-day clock ticking:

  • The Value in Versatility: I have spent significant time working across at least 8 different market offerings – all 8 may have leveraged similar skill-sets, but they all provided exposure to different applications. I am a strong believer that the understanding of ways similar skill-sets can be leveraged to solve an array of vastly different problems is incredibly valuable.
     
  • The Need to Prove Yourself Time-and-Again: I have switched groups 4 times now. With each change came the need to build new relationships, the challenge to prove myself to people who had no idea of my capabilities (or lack thereof), and the chance to find new mentors and champions to enhance my overall progression.  But when an employee transitions to a new group, it is upon him / her to bridge the connections - value is gained by increasing (not replacing) your internal network with each move.
     
  • Paid Sabbatical...Say What? I was afforded the opportunity to take a paid sabbatical to help build a non-profit organization in 2010 / 2011. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help build something that was meaningful to me without sacrificing my livelihood.  The best part of that experience was the ability to utilize skills and identify personal / professional weaknesses that I never would have found in my day job.  That is the value of sabbaticals - if you structure them with no accountability, they become 'boondoggles'.  Make people prove what they plan to do with a sabbatical is value-add to the person's professional progression, which inherently benefits the organization.  If you make things like sabbaticals structured with accountability, then people should never (as I wasn't) be penalized for embarking on what can be such a valuable experience.
     
  • Exposure is Everything: Today, I am taking part in a 2-year rotational development program focused on a specific industry vertical. I have, once again, been put in a position of having to build new relationships and utilize skill-sets beyond the day-in / day-out of client-service.  It has been a great opportunity to see how the ‘sausage is made’, enabled a broader perspective of the entire organization and has helped me understand the dynamics of reaching the peak (or maybe more importantly, understanding the reasons why others top out at 'base camp').

I am not here to say I am the “poster-child” of loyalty, but I am here to tell you what has enabled my loyalty.  I believe that people leave organizations for many reasons, but I do not think money is the key driver of churn.  I think people leave organizations because they get bored and they find what appear to be better opportunities.  There is excitement in change and the grass ALWAYS looks greener on the other side.  However, as the old adage goes, make sure you are watering the grass on your side of the fence before jumping over it - a dual-sided challenge. 

So while Fortune touts "perks" as being the drivers of the best companies to work for.  I say that a better title for that list would be, "The best companies that get employees in the door".  That list is all about perks, which are not necessarily correlated with retention because they exist everywhere.  I say the better list is, "The best companies that keep employees in the door."  I have often said, "Don't ask me why I came...ask me why I stayed".  I am not devaluing Fortune's list - I am simply emphasizing that many of the items it points out are not drivers of loyalty.  If you ever take a look at large companies where the C-Suite is dominated by 20+ year veterans, you will find a couple themes: 1) The organizations have a strong culture of organic promotion where each member of the leadership team has spent time in multiple areas of the business; and, 2) They are not highly-ranked on Fortune's list.

Ultimately, both the employer and the employee need to commit to the idea of FLEXIBILITY through internal opportunities as a fundamental tool to empower loyalty and upward mobility.  The employee needs to look beyond the here-and-now to understand the opportunities that exist within his / her current organization which will help reconcile the value of the internal network (it's not just dollars and cents). On the flip-side, the employer needs to embrace a culture where new opportunities through internal movement create the growth opportunities that are vital to professional progression and elimination of self-limitation - these opportunities should not be advertised as ‘perks’ of the job, but essential enablers of growth - both for the individual and for the organization through the preservation of its core values through employee continuity.  

*Originally posted on LinkedIn here.

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**DISCLAIMER: The thoughts expressed in this post are strictly mine and do not represent the opinions of anybody but me.  The above should not be mistaken as career advice or anything more than an opinion. Please consult your career guru before making any drastic changes.  Additionally, if you have changed jobs every 2 years and have never regretted it - more power to you!