3 Keys to Retaining Top Talent
These tips can help young professionals learn to lead better and develop a staff that stays.
Amanda L. Gavin, CPA, MBA
Manager, Global Tax & Trade, Caterpillar Inc.
With low unemployment and a growing need for talented accounting professionals,
corporate leaders are increasingly asking, “How do we retain our top talent?” On the other
hand, in a competitive job market, accounting professionals have the luxury of looking for
companies that will offer them the full package experience. We’re seeing staff looking for
more fringe benefits, such as increased flexibility, more growth and development
opportunities, and a greater corporate focus on diversity and culture. In response,
corporations across the globe are implementing new strategies and programs and revising
policies to help attract and retain diverse accounting talent. But what does that mean for a
young professional learning to lead?
If you’re new to managing a team or still establishing your leadership role, it can be
challenging to create a dynamic team where top talent remains engaged — add in the need
to know how to best navigate and implement the policies many corporate HR departments
are rolling out and your job seems all the more difficult. But it doesn’t have to be.
It’s common for young professional leaders to want to do things to immediately and
positively impact employee satisfaction and, ultimately, retention. I’m going to suggest you
slow down and learn from those that led before you. Throughout my career in both public
accounting and industry, I have worked on very successful teams where leadership did a
great job of engaging and empowering staff and providing a highly productive work
environment. Here’s what I learned.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
How well do you know your team? Most leaders can automatically list the strengths,
opportunities for improvements (notice I didn’t say weaknesses), and a few highlights of a
direct report’s performance. However, how many leaders can also list what each direct
report expects from their job, how they learn best, what they want to be doing in five or 10
years, and what they would like to have more support on? Being able to answer the second
set of questions is what differentiates you as a real leader.
In turn, can your employees list examples of how you have supported them, engaged
them in meaningful conversations based on their interests, and provided work to further
To help facilitate this kind of relationship development, Caterpillar, for example, encourages
us to hold monthly one-on-one meetings with our direct reports where they lead the
discussion and managers are there to engage in providing constructive support. These
monthly meetings are meant to help team leaders gain a deeper understanding of their
employees and how they can serve and develop them better.
EMPOWER YOUR EMPLOYEES
One of the best retention methods I have seen is quite simple: Let your top talent perform!
As a leader, it’s important that you identify areas of improvement and then assign
your direct reports meaningful projects related to those areas, but it’s also just as important
to make sure your employees are working on projects they care about — and to trust
them to perform.
In my experience, keeping a list of ongoing
projects, getting staff feedback on their
individual interest in the projects, and then
balancing involvement in those projects
with each staffer’s core workload leads
to employing really productive teams.
Following this approach results in a team
that feels the freedom to pursue and
work toward projects of interest, which in
turn fosters a fully engaged team that’s
committed to the projects it’s working on.
Many companies are coming up with
creative ways to promote flexible work
environments, which, hopefully, will
increase productivity and job satisfaction.
However, a company offering a flexible
work environment is very different from a
leader actually encouraging and supporting
that flexible work environment. As a leader,
how encouraging of flexibility and work-life
balance are you within your team?
The most productive teams I have worked
with always encouraged their employees to
use flex time, work from home when
needed, and/or alternate working hours to
meet their personal needs. Within my
group at Caterpillar, for instance, we offer
“flex days.” We submit a planned two-week
schedule, working a minimum
number of hours to complete an assigned
workload. Then, one day during the
second week can be a flex day. Other
groups offer the option of working four 10-hour days per week during non-busy times.
Another group allows their employees to
work from home one set day each week,
year-round. The leaders within each of
these groups found the flexibility options
that worked best and encouraged their
employees to participate. The result is
increased productivity and job satisfaction.
The biggest downfall to a flexible work
policy is a manager that doesn’t support
or encourage it. So, ask yourself, if
your company offers a flexible work
environment, do your direct reports fully
utilize those policies? If not, why not and
what can you do to change it?
The corporate world has a growing need to
attract and retain top talent. As a young
leader, much of that burden will fall on you.
I often tell my direct reports that I want to
help them reach a point where it would be
my pleasure to work for them one day! If
you want to hold onto your staff and mold
them into next generation leaders, it’s
critical that you connect with them,
encourage and support their professional
growth, and respect their work-life balance
as their careers and responsibilities grow.