Getting top talent to stay put is about understanding what staff need.

The skills shortage challenge forecast for many years is finally making itself felt in a very real way to organisations' efficiency and bottom-line profitability. Organisations - particularly those in the engineering, manufacturing and accounting fields - have a clear plan of what they want to achieve in the next five years, but they don't know how, or more importantly who is going to help them to do it.

But while attraction of talent is front and centre of the skills shortage debate, it is only one side of the coin. Attraction goes hand in hand with retention and it is to this that organisations need to turn their attention if they are to survive what is becoming a human resources crisis. While individual companies have a limited ability to solve the skills shortage challenge (skills development programmes and sponsorships can only achieve so much and even then, only in the longer-term), they do have the potential to make an immediate and tangible impact on retention of the talent that they managed to attract in the first place. However, too many companies are not giving this issue the attention and strategic input it deserves.

HR practitioners do not need to be reminded of the marked and immediate effect that staff attrition can have on the effectiveness of an organisation. Generally speaking, when staff haemorrhaging occurs, it is the most talented people who leave first, leaving behind those individuals who are less marketable. As talent is stripped from an organisation, productivity, innovation and morale quickly decline.

In the South African context in particular, the problem of retention is complicated by the unique challenges posed by employment equity. BEE candidates, so highly sought after by organisations in all industries, are fast-tracked to management positions so quickly that they bypass the natural learning process whereby other employees ordinarily learn the ropes. In addition, the kind of mentorship required by these candidates is most often not applied at such management levels.

The more the fast-tracked individual is unable to meet the unrealistic expectation of a position that is beyond their immediate competence, the less inclined their colleagues are of offering help, in most cases fearing that they will be 'tainted' by failure by doing so. Unhappy and unfulfilled in their position, but unable or unwilling to tell their 'secret' of not coping, these candidates usually take the first opportunity to leave the organisation before they are 'found out'. And so, talented and skilled people who require nothing more than a proper mentorship and assimilation programme, are lost to organisations. 

The solution to the challenge is by no means a simple one, but a good starting point is to formulate a strategic retention plan, central to the effectiveness and success of which is the recognition that staff need to be treated as an internal target market. While companies are more than happy to spend millions of rands on media campaigns aimed at attracting and retaining external customers, when they want to communicate something important to staff, they are unable to come up with anything more creative or impactful than a memo or an email.

Internal marketing is the first step towards developing an employee value proposition because, like any effective marketing campaign, it forces companies to understand the needs of the target market and formulate a 'product' that meets and exceeds these needs. Only once an organisation has truly engaged with the needs and expectations of its staff can it begin to formulate a proposition that will entice them to stay.

And 'entice' is an important word in this context. In helping companies to formulate an effective employee value proposition, I often relate the conversation between an Australian and South African sheep farmer. Noticing that sheep farm fences in Australia are conspicuous in their absence, the South African farmer asks his Australian counterpart how on earth he manages to prevent his sheep from straying. The Australian's answer is simple. In the outback, water is the scarcest resource and so long as he puts enough wells in place for the sheep to drink from, none of them will stray too far and he won't have to build any fences. The successful management of staff retention issues can be derived from a similar approach and mature organisation are coming to understand the power of 'wells' over 'fences' in getting their hard-won talent to stay put. 

Juliet Newton, Avocado Vision (

Source: HR