Keeping Your Star Performers

FRAMINGHAM (04/03/2000) - Why does a star performer up and leave the company?

James Waldroop says it isn't usually for money or any of the other reasons typically given but rather because the job doesn't tie into what makes the star happy.

The manager must help people discover what that is and sculpt a position that allows its expression, says Waldroop, co-author with Tim Butler of "Job Sculpting: The Art of Retaining Your Best People," which appeared in the September/October issue of Harvard Business Review. Waldroop, associate director of career development at Harvard Business School and principal of Peregrine Partners, a career development firm in Brookline, Massachusetts, talked about job sculpting with Computerworld senior editor Kathleen Melymuka.

CW: You say it isn't safe to assume that people who excel at their work are happy in their jobs. Why not?

Waldroop: I'm pretty good at changing tires, and if you paid me enough I could really turn that lug wrench, but would I be happy? No.

People in the engineering and technology field were often counseled in that direction because they're good at math and science, and they went. It was easy and it was a good job. But they never liked it.

And that's where deeply embedded life interests come into the picture.

CW: Can you explain what that means?

Waldroop: By deeply embedded life interests, I'm not talking about passing fancies like collecting gold coins. I'm talking about interests in the core activities of doing business. By the time people reach early adulthood, their interest patterns are set for life. We've identified eight broad, core functions that apply to a variety of work. People generally have two or three.

In that combination of interests, you can find the right path.

CW: Can you give me some examples of how you can help an employee align his life interests with his career?

Waldroop: Take somebody interested in application of technology and creative production and we might be talking about Web design or working for George Lucas [on computer effects for movies] - technical but creative. But if you fold in managing people, then we're talking about a different animal: somebody who might like managing that group. Then somebody who likes to influence through language and ideas wants to be closer to the customer: a product manager who really thinks about how to get people to buy this thing. The person who likes enterprise control wants to be running the show - maybe starting the business or taking it over - managing from a strategic point of view.

CW: What happens when someone's job doesn't nurture his life interests?

Waldroop: There are some life interests that you can express outside work.

Someone with a desire to mentor might become a Big Brother, for example. But many people will be miserable and will eventually quit without realizing why they're quitting.

CW: So people may not know what their life interests are?

Waldroop: Not necessarily, and they make career missteps as a result. They go from Company A to Company B, and they still aren't expressing their life interest because they're doing the same old thing.

CW: How can a manager help?

Waldroop: When an individual says he's tired and burned out, a manager can help him figure this out and fine-tune the work rather than lose the person.

CW: Example?

Waldroop: You've got an engineer who is interested in counseling and mentoring, but he's spending [all of his time] in front of a terminal. Maybe this person can set up a mentoring program for new hires. If he's also interested in influencing through language and ideas, he might be sent out on the road periodically to do recruiting.

Let's say there's an interest in influencing through language and ideas, but not in mentoring. That person might stay in the engineering role, but also work as liaison between his group and the sales and support folks. If he's really into creative production, he could work with the people who write the manuals.

CW: So you can make fairly minor changes or start with small changes that will evolve over time?

Waldroop: Absolutely. But they can also be major changes. If somebody really ought to be moved into something different, move him.

CW: How can I incorporate this kind of thinking at my company?

Waldroop: As an individual manager, you can use this as a model and say, "Look at this list and tell me what you think you are." But that's a suboptimal approach, because it communicates that the manager cares but not that the entire organization does. And a manager doesn't know enough about all the jobs in the company and what their activities are to be able to split a person's time 80-20 [ratio between two functions] or whatever it takes.

If there's an organizational commitment, you make the decision that this is really something you want to put energy into, and you sell it to your employees as something that will help them find the right place to make their career interesting and useful. You have no idea what a competitive advantage that is when recruiting.

CW: How do you know this works?

Waldroop: We have no hard data; the tools and concept haven't been around long enough for that. But our experience is absolutely consistent that when people are able to mold their jobs to fit them a little bit better, they stay.

The Eight Core Life Interests

-- Application of technology

-- Quantitative analysis

-- Theoretical development and conceptual thinking-- Creative production-- Counseling and mentoring-- Managing people and relationships-- Enterprise control-- Influencing through language and ideas.

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