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Career Challenge

Keep Greener Pasture and Star Employees on Your Side of Fence

* Employers can retain their stable of talent by asking workers what will make them stay.


Editor's Note: Today, Work Place launches Career Challenge, a feature that occasionally will substitute for Career Make-Over. Career Challenge will focus on a company overcoming a problem situation, such as employee retention, productivity, customer service and motivation. Career Make-Overs will continue to deal with individual career concerns.


Even in this jittery economy, companies are struggling to retain their star employees. This challenge is felt particularly in Silicon Valley, where skilled engineers, technical workers and scientists are in great demand.

Aart de Geus, chairman and chief executive of Mountain View, Calif.-based Synopsys, a 2,900-employee firm with $800 million in 2000 revenue, is implementing new programs to help him retain what he calls "highfliers" (star employees) and "solid citizens" (stable, loyal workers).

For his firm to continue to be a leader in his field--manufacturing electronic design automation software for companies like Motorola and Texas Instruments--it will need a healthy and enduring stable of talent.

De Geus hired Jerry Pike as a senior performance consultant. With the help of Cambria, Calif.-based consultant Sharon Jordan-Evans, Pike devised an overall strategy to carry out de Geus' wishes.

The two men agreed that Synopsys' senior executives will have to dedicate about 30% of their time to retention-related activities. And they could begin by querying employees about their values and needs and the incentives that will make them stay.

"This beats talking to them during the exit interview," Pike said. "When you lose somebody, the first thought is, 'Let's go out and buy another person.' But there's a shortage of people here and it's not just the money that'll keep them."

With consultant Jordan-Evans' help, Pike initiated an ongoing series of retention workshops for the managers, designed to help them identify their top talent, pinpoint retention challenges and create strategies to keep workers content on the job. So far, de Geus and Pike said, the new plan has had beneficial results. One top goal, Jordan-Evans said, "is to re-recruit while [employees] are still with us, still inside the organization."

But Synopsys management also has been aggressive when employees depart for what they perceive as greener pastures. The firm's human resource staff holds exit interviews after the person has left to glean more honest feedback. Synopsys executives use what British Columbia-based consultant John Izzo calls "The Motel 6 Strategy"--"the light is always on"--meaning that they tell those valued former employees that they can return at any time. Last year, Pike said, 34 former workers came back .

In the past, dot-coms in Synopsys' Silicon Valley community were able to lure workers with vague promises of wealth. But today, the spiraling rate of failed dot-coms has made talented employees in Silicon Valley and elsewhere more discerning about when and where to jump ship.

Some financially strapped firms are ignoring their retention problems, instead jettisoning employees to slash costs, Izzo said. During their downsizings, they inadvertently may be laying off their top talent, industrious producers, longtime workers and best managers.

"I think this is foolish and short-sighted," said Susan Annunzio, leader of Nextera's change management practice in Chicago and author of "eLeadership: Proven Techniques for Creating an Environment of Speed and Flexibility in the Digital Economy" (Free Press, 2001).

Added John Izzo, "It's a very dangerous time for companies in the United States, because there are assumptions that there'll be a slowdown in the talent crisis due to the current economic situation."

Failure to retain star employees can prove extremely expensive, according to studies. The cost of replacing talented workers typically runs 70% to 200% of their annual salaries, said Beverly Kaye, coauthor of "Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay," (Berrett-Koehler, 1999). Lost sales staff also can hurt a company's bottom line, as customers leave and sales in progress fall apart.

That's why it's critical that company managers ask valued employees about their needs, Izzo said.

"Yet I'm amazed how many companies don't do that," he said. "Even happy workers will leave to go somewhere else if they want to try something new, and think they can't do so at their present jobs."

Added Deborah Holmes, director of Ernst & Young's office for retention in New York, "It's sort of astonishing how so many employers read the paper to find out what other employers are doing, then copy them without finding out what their own employees want."

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