insight magazine

Corporate Minded

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 their development?

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.

ENCOURAGE FLEXIBILITY

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.

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