4 Ways to Develop & Retain Employees When You Can’t Give Promotions

Climbing the corporate ladder has long been the traditional view of success in an organization. The main strategy for developing and retaining key talent has been to keep them engaged through a series of promotions and title changes that satisfy an individual’s need for growth and recognition.

Corporate Ladder vs Lattice

Credit: The Corporate Lattice, Deloitte University Press

Well, in most organizations these days, the corporate ladder has been replaced by the corporate lattice. The flat design of most organizations has eliminated the ladder—multiple layers of structure—and instead created an environment where growth has to be achieved in a zig-zag, network pattern of project-based assignments or leadership experiences. So when leaders don’t have the ability to hand out promotions, how do they grow, engage, and retain their key talent? Here are four approaches:

1. Ask your team members what they’re interested in doing — Asking someone what they want…novel concept, huh? Many leaders choose not to have this conversation because they are afraid they won’t be able to provide what is requested. Instead, frame the conversation with your employees as a time to explore opportunities with no strings attached. I tell team members that nothing is off the table when we have these conversations and I balance it with also saying I’m not making any promises. We’re simply exploring options, yet I make it clear that I’m in the employee’s corner and will do everything in my power to help them achieve their goals if there is a way we can find alignment between their interests and the needs of the organization.

2.Don’t be constrained by job descriptions — My HR colleagues may cringe a bit with my philosophy, but I believe leaders need to think beyond job descriptions when it comes to employee growth. Too often we get locked into job descriptions as the defining scope of a person’s responsibilities, including who reports to who in the chain of command. In reality, we need to consider the job description as the broad outline of how and where the person will contribute to the organization. Growing in the corporate lattice requires people to take on BHAG’s (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) that allow them to develop new skill-sets and competencies. Leaders should frame growth as an individual’s chance for resume enhancement that will benefit them in the future, whether at your organization or somewhere else.

3. Give away parts of your job — Most leaders have far too much on their plates to accomplish on their own, so why not delegate some of your key responsibility areas to competent and motivated team members? It’s hard for some leaders to go this route because it means giving up control and trusting others. It can also be threatening to your ego, as if it’s an admission you aren’t capable of doing it all on your own. Actually, smart leaders use this strategy because it’s a win-win for everyone. Your employees get to take on challenging goals and they earn the satisfaction of contributing in important ways, and you deliver on the key objectives for your team and develop a strong bench of capable and committed team members.

4. Adopt a mindset of being a developer and exporter of talent — Leaders should consider it a fiduciary responsibility to help their people grow, even at the risk of having them leave for greener pastures at some point in the future. My experience has shown when employees clearly know you are on their side and will do whatever you can to support their growth, they devote even more loyalty to you and will stay with you as long as possible. Who would want to leave an environment where they know their boss bends over backwards to provide opportunities for growth and development? Not many.

The corporate ladder doesn’t exist in many organizations these days and leaders don’t have the ability to hand out promotions like they were candy. We’ve got to have ongoing career conversations with team members, look for areas of growth beyond the boundaries of job descriptions, delegate key responsibilities to others, and be willing to invest in developing people, even at the risk of them ultimately leaving the organization. Using these strategies to navigate the corporate lattice, combined with financial models that facilitate income growth, will help you develop an engaged and passionate workforce that fuels personal and organizational success.

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