Published in the Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal
July 27, 2007
Did you see the recent news story about the latest crop of college graduates, dubbed “The Choosy Generation” by a clever headline writer? It seems the best-educated young graduates realize that they currently are a commodity in short supply. And they’re responding to the law of supply and demand like any capable capitalist: they’re demanding more from potential employers. From six-figure salaries to corner offices to immediate access to senior executives, these young upstarts expect to start at the top.
For those of us who’ve been building businesses and working our way up over the years the old fashioned way – with hard work, innovation and willingness to go the extra mile -- their attitude of entitlement seems unrealistic and, frankly, a little outrageous. But as business owners and managers, we need to adapt to current business conditions or risk losing out on the best and brightest of the next generation of employees and leaders.
But here’s the good news: Attracting and retaining excellent employees doesn’t have to blow your budget or wreak havoc on your company’s culture. In fact, it’s just the opposite. If you’re committed to creating a healthy, ethical culture you will find the best and brightest beating a path to your door. A lot of factors influence your company’s culture, but here are four things that I think matter most: (1) involve employees; (2) invest in employees; (3) reward employees; and (4) respect employees.
To be most effective, employee involvement should be systematic and consistent. At my company, this takes the form of a brief meeting several times per week, which gives everyone a chance to weigh in on problems or concerns. We also have incorporated innovative ideas from “The Great Game of Business” so all our employees can see how we’re doing relative to key business goals. The game gives them a stake in how we’re doing and makes it fun at the same time. We also involve employees in our philanthropic activities, from running our company foundation to volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. There’s nothing better to build a sense of camaraderie and shared mission than spending a few hours each month helping families in need. It also helps us to keep our own problems in a healthy perspective.
The best employees want to keep learning, improving their skills and obtaining additional professional certifications. Let them know you support them with a generous training budget, keeping in mind that people learn differently. If you can’t afford traditional classroom training, there are many opportunities for distance learning through online training. And even within the realm of online training, there are many options.
Employees can take instructor-led courses over that Internet, for example, which permit interaction between learners and the instructor. These types of instructor-led online courses provide nearly the same level of personalized instruction as in an actual classroom setting but without the expense of travel and hotel accommodations associated with attending live training programs in other cities.
Beyond training, employers should invest in top employees with opportunities to recharge their professional batteries through sabbaticals, much like colleges and universities offer faculty members. At our company, employees earn three months of vacation for every seven years of service. Most importantly, we allow employees to take that time off all at once, which allows them to really step away and come back fully refreshed, much like a new employee on the first day of work at a new job.
I’ve learned that rewards don’t always need to be big to be meaningful. In fact, some of the most effective rewards are those small gestures of recognition that occur “on the spot” when an employee does an extraordinarily good job or goes the extra mile for one of our customers. One of the most effective things you can do is take the time to send a handwritten note (email doesn’t cut it). Research shows that employees will remember a handwritten thank you note three-to-six times longer than a mere conversation or email message.
As a small company, we’ve found a way to share the success of our company with those who make it possible: our employees. We’ve instituted employee profit and equity participation plans. As our company becomes more profitable employees participate and, as we grow, they receive free options in the business. This approach encourages loyalty because long-time employees benefit the most.
Employees deserve to know when things are going well and when they’re not. They also need to know what’s expected of them and what qualifies them for advancement. At Intertech, we work to set clear goals and expectations around performance. And for those who want to move up, we have a transparent plan for how they can advance. Most importantly, we cultivate a culture of openness and respect for employees as team members, not adversaries or underlings. -30-