Driving Your People Away?

Driving_away Amidst all the legitimate concerns and problems I’ve seen of late pertaining to finding great people and "retaining" them, I’ve been extraordinarily frustrated by discussion threads I’ve been reading.

First, let’s define "great people." 

Firms want: smart, self-motivated, self-managing, business development-minded people who will become eventual leaders. These people should be able to exercise substantial judgment in technical scenarios, recognizing when information is noteworthy or merits transmission to others, and in all forms of customer communication. They should be able to train those lower in the ranks than themselves.

These sound like knowledge workers, yes?

So now let’s talk about "retention." Isn’t this word awful? Doesn’t it bring to mind the image of a cage or barricade? In fact, by definition, it is to "keep, hold, hold on to, hold back, keep back, keep in possession."

A knowledge worker is not retained or kept. A knowledge worker is inspired, intrigued, motivated, and intellectually stimulated. A knowledge worker needs to be TRUSTED.

A knowledge worker is, in fact, also a volunteer according to Peter Drucker who said knowledge workers invest of themselves with the expectation of a psychological ROI.

Your knowledge workers may or may not choose to come back tomorrow. Worse than not coming back, they could still come to work, but may no longer be "there" psychologically. If you measure "productivity" with timesheets and attendance, would you ever really know? Yikes.

How much thought and effort do firm leaders/management dedicate to improving their ability to inspire, intrigue, motivate and intellectually challenge their people? Very, very little.

Making minor improvements to common benefits like free sodas or vision/dental coverage is not going to entice someone to stay. These things will NOT make a drop-in-the-bucket difference when firms fail to address the true needs of knowledge workers.

Worse, I want to scream aloud when I see firms focusing intently on micromanaging stupid things like cell phone policies, dress codes and, yes, grooming policies! Good God! If we are having to tell people to bathe and comb their hair, we aren’t hiring great people.

These sorts of policies underscore the firms’ lack of trust of their knowledge workers. The very existence of these policies in firms draw attention to the lack of alignment between who they are and what they want.

And if we are hiring great people and telling everybody, across the board, exactly how to dress or groom because one person can’t get it right, then we don’t deserve all those other great people. Frankly, if one person struggles to be appropriate in personal appearance, and we write a "Policy" because we’re too chicken to coach them individually, then we get what we deserve when we demoralize everyone who is not the problem.

If we refuse to equip people with cell phones so that we and our clients can reach them (accessibility is still a good thing, right?) then what does that say about the firm’s commitment to service? Seriously, how much does a cell-phone cost? What is the cost of inaccessibility?

Where is the firm walking its talk?

Morale in firms is bottom of the barrel low. Adding health club or vision benefits isn’t going to solve the problem. Adding petty policies to micromanage knowledge workers is another slap in the face.

Instead of treating people like children, firms should be thinking about:

  1. how they are going to train and delegate more interesting work
  2. how they will recognize and implement new ideas that come from the youngest, freshest minds in the firm
  3. how they will encourage creativity and innovation that will get the profession through the transition to the next generation
  4. how they will quit micromanaging every 6 minutes of the day
  5. how they will instead look at the value the knowledge worker brings to the firm and its clients

Most firms offer an extremely unfriendly environment for professionals. Most partners agree. But most aren’t doing anything to improve it, either.

Associates–the ones who stay–are shunning the "opportunity" to be partners in their firms. The problem isn’t that the associates are unwilling to take responsibility, it’s the firms failing to offer the opportunity to make a difference to knowledge workers who thrive on the ability to make a difference. I talk to associates in law and CPA firms every week and I hear about this first-hand. They are squelched and discouraged when it comes to new ideas.

Really want an office full of "great" professionals? Then create an environment where they will thrive, not shrivel and conform to a broken firm model.

When your knowledge workers drive home at the end of the day, do they want to come back? Or keep on going…?


  1. Hi Michelle,

    Brilliant article and more than timely. Far too many professional firms assess their people’s performance as though they were manual labourers shovelling manure from one pile onto the other.

    What they fail to realise is that knowledge workers don’t switch on and off, and they often have profit-tripling ideas for the firm in the middle of Sunday lunch or during morning shower, in their personal times. And when the firm uses these ideas, these poor souls hardly ever get compensated or recognised for the idea because it came up outside office hours.

    I believe practitioners should be given much more freedom than they have now. It’s not about pumping in more working hours but doing what has to be done to create wildly satisfied clients.

    And when it comes to teamwork, I think firms have a lot to learn from what’s often referred to as the “Ultimate Professional Service Firm”: The military. Of course, as an former soldier, I’m biased.

    I love your term “business development-minded.”




  1. Class of 2013: What Is Calling You?…

    It you have not already, you should really check out Ron Baker’s graduation speech post on LinkedIn…

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