Retention: unlocking the key to talent

Retention: unlocking the key to talent
Opinion: Career Leaders

The focus for 2023 should be on retention rather than recruitment argues Jan Gooding.


I must confess, I sat listening to the discussion about how we harness the talent of the media industry at ‘The Year Ahead’ last week with some frustration. 

Admittedly this is a huge topic, and one that is probably worthy of a conference in its own right, not just a brief panel discussion. I also know that there is sincere commitment to addressing it, given it emerged as one of the three topics the industry identified as an area of key concern to address in 2023. However, I sat there wondering whether we have a clear understanding of the problem we are trying to solve, or its root causes. 

What surprised me about the discussion was that it was mainly focussed on the old issue of how to attract more diverse people into the industry at entry level. 

Whilst this is still an issue worthy of debate, it is not the reason this topic was voted as one of the top three for the industry to address. The problem we face lies in retention, not recruitment. And it affects every level of operations, not just the entry level. 

People are leaving their jobs in unprecedented numbers, and they are proving difficult and expensive to replace. 

The total approach to talent requires a review

Any ideas on attracting more diverse newcomers to the industry will not matter if the inherent structural issues for the whole workforce remain unaddressed. 

These include the unfair distribution of pay, unrealistic workloads, a lack of investment in training or opportunities to progress, increasing job insecurity, unskilled managers, and poor workplace cultures. 

I will generalise to make the point, but I suspect that every year the proportion of company budgets invested in the whole of the workforce has been reduced in favour of protecting margins and profit in the service of funding director bonus pots and dividends. In a post-Brexit, post-pandemic world where skilled labour has become scarce, the chickens have finally come home to roost.

Remuneration is at the heart of the problem

In 2022, HR News cited the main reason people planned to move jobs was because they were looking for higher salaries, better rewards, and more benefits. 

The logic of that is likely to mean they have felt they are not being properly remunerated in their existing role and have reached a point where their only option is to look elsewhere. 

If we are honest, we have to admit that people are not always paid the going market rate for their current role. Particularly if they have worked in a job for a period of time. 

It has often been the case that newcomers are paid more than incumbents for doing the same job because of the distorting effect of job market negotiations. The current shortage of talent at every level has made this issue even more acute, which has become a real headache to manage. 

One way to address this issue is to increase transparency by creating salary bands and being open and ethical with how you are paying your employees. 

You need to keep monitoring competitors so you are up to speed with what rewards or working flexibility they may offer to tempt your valuable people elsewhere. 

If you do make a hire that is creating a distortion in pay differentiation or benefits, you will have built-in trouble down the line if you don’t address it directly. 

Just as consumers who are loyal hate to see the best prices and discounts going to new customers, staff feel exactly the same about new joiners being paid substantially more than them. And they will find out. 

Investing in middle management will reap rewards

Business leaders may find they have inherited a reward system built up over time and which is no longer fit for purpose. 

Now is the time to reflect on whether reward distribution across their whole workforce is optimal and if not, how they can start to make changes to rectify the situation. 

In an industry which tends to give large rewards to ‘star talent’ at the expense of the rest of the workforce, there will have to be a bit of a rethink.

I have said it before, but I would focus my attention on investing in middle management. There are so many opportunities to think creatively about attracting and keeping diverse, experienced, and skilled people in the middle ranks. 

They are the engine room of any organisation and on the subject of staff retention have disproportionate impact in both a positive and negative direction, so it makes sense to give them particular attention. 

If you can’t fix pay, then at least address workloads

After pay, the second big reason for people leaving is feeling overworked. This is only exacerbated when people leave. As a consequence, the remaining staff are required to take up the slack, leading to an even greater sense of disaffection and people being overworked. 

Failing to manage staff resources realistically against the known workload is unforgiveable. It is one of the fundamental planks of good management and yet it would seem the industry has failed to invest in these kinds of skills.

It’s probably because in times when people were easily replaced it was possible to get away with neglecting to manage people effectively. We have now reached a tipping point. Too many people are experiencing burnout and a buoyant job market means they can vote with their feet and move elsewhere. 

It seems obvious that there is a need to invest in the skills of managers, so they are competent in looking after and managing the talented people they are responsible for. These are skills that can and should be taught and not left to chance given the importance of a well-managed workforce to business success. 

People value learning new skills

In addition to pay and reasonable workload expectations, the third big driver of retention is the progression opportunities available. 

People are willing to make a trade-off on pay versus the opportunity to get new experiences and improve their knowledge and skills. Making sure that every member of staff has a motivating development plan with a combination of self-learning, formal training opportunities and thought given to the range of work they will be assigned gives people another reason to stay. 

Sponsorship and mentorship schemes, engaging everyone in co-creating an inclusive work culture, recognising and celebrating success and individual contributions, may not be as important as salary but it also plays a part in reinforcing employee satisfaction. 

As we talk about talent over the year, I hope we will remember that we mean everyone, not just newcomers. 

Just as we know it generally costs less to keep an existing customer than attract a new one, the same can be said for your employees. 

The mantra of this year should be ‘Retention, Retention, Retention’. 

Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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