Last month, I was the opening keynote for a financial services organization. The event was their Awards Ceremony honoring those employees who have excelled in the areas of business development, customer service, teamwork and length of employment. Now the first three awards I understood, but the last one (length of employment) had me a little baffled.

You have been to these meetings, right? You know the ones – where they are honoring people who have stayed on the job or been with their company for ten, twenty, even thirty years? What is our obsession with giving awards to employees just for staying put? Okay now, before you jump all over me… I get it. There is something to be said for loyalty. However, is length of service really something you reward or want to place value on?

When they announced the winner of the 20 years of service award, Tim Grant (name and length of service changed to protect the innocent), everyone at my table started to make jokes under their breath. Jokes about how Tim may have shown up for the most hours, but to say he was worked is a stretch. How Tim is still employed, but it feels like he retired ten years ago. It reminded me of being in grade school. Remember when they gave awards out for perfect attendance? And those kids who won perfect attendance were always the same kids who came to school with runny noses and signs of the flu. The ones that got everyone else in class sick. Giving an award for exceptional academic achievement I get, giving an award for just showing up? Well for me, the jury is still out?

I don’t know about you, but I am far more interested in how passionate, excited and motivated my employees are than how many years they work for me. According to the experts, there is a war on talent. And to win this war as leaders, we need to attract, retain and fully develop our employees. Do everything we can to attract the best and the brightest and then get them to stay long-term.

Well the attract and develop part I will go for, I get it. But retain? Really, why is that part of the goal?  And is it realistic?  I think setting employee retention and working hard to keep employees long-term as a goal is a recipe for frustration. Look, as leaders, we must accept that employees have changed and so has the workplace. This is a new marketplace, a new generation and that all creates a new set of rules for how employees and employers work together.

First, really great talent, that kind that comes in with fresh ideas, new perspectives and really pushes your team to another level, they are not going to stay. No matter what you do, no matter what type of benefit package you offer. Long term employment is not only not their goal, and it is not their highest and best use.

And second, we all got ‘em. Those employees that are technically retained, meaning they are still showing up to work, but they quit a long time ago. Oh yeah, technically they qualify as “retained” employees, but by staying with your company they are doing more harm than good.

Your goal with employees should be to attract, develop and then fully engage each team member for as long as they are there. Retention is a result of great engagement, it is not the goal. If we as leaders do this right, then we will fully engage our entire team, getting the best our employees have to offer for as long as they are willing to stay.

4 Strategies For Leading The Next Generation

  1. Embrace

Fully embrace that retention is not the goal. The workplace today is at best unstable, with no guarantee of long-term employment for anyone at any level. Given that we cannot guarantee that our companies will not merge, sell or downsize, we have to accept that employees will not guarantee they will “stay’ long-term on our team. A shifting economy means things will change, and so to retain people long term is unrealistic, but to fully engage them for the time they are there is wicked smart!

  1. Purpose

Begin with purpose. Today’s workforce is looking for something and someone to believe in. They want more than a job. They want a cause, and they want to make a difference. Don’t hire people to be a customer service rep. Hire them to help your customers achieve their dreams. When people believe in something, they are committed to it, and commitment breeds passion and full engagement.

  1. Voice

Everyone wants skin in the game, whether they know it or not. One of the most powerful engagement tools is just to listen. Ask people what they think, what their ideas are, and how goals need to be accomplished. Employees engage when they feel connected and that they are a part of something. Remember people support what they help create.

  1. Investment

If we want our employees to invest in us, we need to begin by investing in them. Zig Ziglar told us that the fastest way to get what we want is to help others get what they want. Investing in employees makes them feel important, that they matter and are valued. When we invest in others, we get back far more than we invested.

Yes, there is a war on talent, and to win you need to shift your focus from retaining employees to engaging employees. If you give them something to believe in (Purpose) skin in the game (Voice) and invest in their futures, I cannot promise you they will stay forever. But I can promise you that while they are there, they will fully engage.