Rather than worry so much about the war for talent in today’s tight job market, executives ought to focus on the waste of talent in their ranks. Many don’t spend nearly enough time making sure the people under them learn and grow on the job.
Companies are filled with alienated employees who feel underutilized and ignored, and are either coasting or searching for new jobs elsewhere. A whopping 70% of U.S. employees say they feel either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work, according to a recent survey by the Gallup Organization.
Business units with such a large number of dissatisfied employees “have more absenteeism and lower productivity—as well as 51% higher turnover rates than those with engaged employees,” says James Harter, chief scientist for Gallup’s international management practice.
A key differential between a staffer who feels like a valuable part of a company and one who is disengaged is the quality of leadership in their workplace. Most engaged employees work for managers who spend a big chunk of their time helping their subordinates succeed. Managers who focus on talent assign their employees to jobs that play to their strengths, make sure they have the resources they need to perform well, respect their opinions and push them to advance.
“The role of people-managers—who develop talent and create sustained profits for companies—isn’t as valued as it should be,” says Harter, co-author with Rodd Wagner, also of Gallup, of 12: The Elements of Great Managing. If it were, he adds, companies wouldn’t promote to management those who succeeded at a prior job but don’t have the foggiest idea about how to motivate people.
Blame the top executives who simply grade their managers on their financial results rather than on how well they groom and retain good employees.
Many people-focused managers have innate coaching skills or worked for a boss who masterfully mentored them. Pete Wamsteeker, general manager of Cargill Animal Nutrition’s West Branch, Iowa, business, was only 15 years old when he landed a job at a feed company in Lethbridge, Alberta. His boss, the company founder, frequently asked him, “What are your plans for the future?”
After college, Wamsteeker joined Cargill, a provider of agricultural and other products and services, which had acquired the feed company.
His first boss, who helped him get the job, remains a close friend and role model. Like him, Wamsteeker, 41, asks employees scores of questions to figure out how “to serve them,” he says. Five years ago, he was assigned to turn around Cargill’s West Branch pork-business consultancy. The first thing he did was figure out which employees would excel at which jobs. He moved one very quiet, deliberate employee to a job analyzing how pork producers world-wide can improve productivity.
“He had technical expertise and had worked in Taiwan, so understood different cultures—and he has flourished in this job,” says Wamsteeker, who offers advice to employees and listens to their concerns as he joins them on customer calls and business trips.
“In some corporate cultures, there’s a lot of impatience, so if someone doesn’t exactly fit one job, he’s pushed aside for someone else,” he adds. “I look at people as half full, not half empty, and try to find out what’s happening to them at work and in their personal lives to find learning gaps that I can help fill.”
Several years ago, after observing Luke Wells, a young employee, speaking to a customer, Wamsteeker urged him to “act more like a prizefighter.” He told Wells, “I don’t mind if you maybe get knocked down a few times, but you’ve got to have the confidence that I’m never going to let you get knocked out.”
Now, Wells is himself a manager and tells his employees the same thing. “We’re putting in eight- to 12-hour days, but we have fun and, because of Pete, it’s a very tight-knit team with an almost family feeling,” he says.
Companies headed by chief executives who rate managers on how well they develop talent usually have more committed employees. To that end, Campbell Soup’s CEO Doug Conant rewards managers who unleash talent and get high performance from their staffs.
One example is Lisa Walker, business director of the wellness team at Campbell USA. She knew she needed an energized team to lead the company’s recent launch of low-sodium soups. She strengthened her ranks by giving equal attention to the star performers and to those needing help. “When someone is struggling, it’s a huge drain on everyone else who must pick up the slack—so it’s in my and the company’s interests to help that struggling person,” she says.
She feels buoyed when her coaching advice enables someone talented to advance. Walker taught one good employee who liked to just “charge ahead with projects” how to confer more with other colleagues—a skill he needed to master if he wanted to move up.
The employee later told Walker “it’s clear that you and the company really care about my success,” she recalls. “That’s about the best feedback I can ever get as a manager.”
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