Servant Leadership and Employee Retention

The United States Navy's "Blue Angels" fly over the Naval Academy's 2009 commencement ceremony in Delta Formation in Annapolis, Md., May 22, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson) This official White House photograph is being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way or used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Unplanned employee turnover is a painful and costly business malady. Even in a large organizations like the military, leaders are challenged to keep high performers inside the pyramid-shaped org chart and minimize attrition.

Creating mutually beneficial and productive relationships between employers and employees requires creative thinking and sound leaderships fundamentals. I enjoyed “The Alliance” by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, as it offered a similar perspective to our approach with retention in the military. EVERYone had an option to ‘get out’ at some defined date in the near future, which kept employee retention on everyone’s radar.

Retaining and advancing your team is a dynamic leadership skillset for sure. I trust you’ll find a nugget on this List, or perhaps a new tactic you might kick-start today:

  1. Design and execute a top-shelf onboarding program that delivers a positive impression to new hires on Day 1. The first 60 days are critical, and you don’t get a do-over with the first impression. Manage and play a visible role on Day 1 and throughout your onboarding program.
  2. Develop, publish and maintain an employee retention strategy. A leadership responsibility that can not be delegated to HR.
  3. Ask for input and strategies/tactics for improvement. Demonstrate empathy and solicit constructive feedback at all levels. Be prepared to answer “Why?” when asked.
  4. Set standards for continuous improvement. Without micromanaging. (Hint: A debriefing program can help with a big part of your CI initiatives)
  5. Create a transparent leadership culture. Ensure everyone is aware of your current strategies (you’ve got those, right?) and the mission, challenges and accomplishments of your company. The “We’ve got a secret” approach of senior management teams only serves to create unproductive cliques, gossip and rifts that corrode respect and send people to the door.
  6. Make work fun. Ensure a respectful, appropriate and considerate sense of humor and fun spirit exists in your culture and work environment.
  7. Plan, Execute and Debrief. The Debriefing part is the toughest to institute in most company cultures. Be patient and work at making it a reality. Create repeatable, scalable processes where they makes sense. Plan the work, work the plan, and debrief/learn from the outcomes.
  8. Recognize great performances and contributions. Deliver the right kinds of recognition the right way. Make it fun and genuine. Creating phony accomplishments or recognizing the wrong people always backfires.
  9. Eliminate dumb rules and unnecessary bureaucracy.
  10. Do not tolerate mediocrity. I like Nick Saban’s quote: “High achievers don’t like working with mediocre people, and mediocre people don’t like high achievers.” Build teams accordingly. Don’t lose your high achievers because of eroding standards.

Leadership is both art and science. Formal and informal. Directive and collaborative. Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, Y’ers and Millennials all have different experiences and perspectives on leadership.

Keeping your best people is tough in such a networked economy. Keep it simple: Good communication (listening, and speaking mindfully) is still the foundation of productive and lasting relationships.

Jack Liles flew combat missions in the Navy F-14 Tomcat after graduating from The Citadel, and successfully transitioned into a sales and marketing career following his naval service. He’s held leadership roles at the ad agency Leo Burnett, Coca-Cola, UPS, several start-up tech and consulting companies, and is an occasional military analyst on CNN. Jack is a Partner at TechCXO, an executive professional services firm that provides C-level leaderhip and consulting services for clients seeking accelerated growth and revenue. Reach Jack at

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