LETTER: How companies address chronic turnover

Letter to the editor submitted by Mike Warner, June 8, 2018

Much has been written about the causes for the persistent turnover in the Superintendent of Schools position. When this problem occurs in the business world, the response is usually swift, decisive and sometimes transformative for the organization.

Corporate leaders figured out long ago that turnover in high-impact management jobs is not only expensive but replacing a key employee with a relatively unknown outsider is risky.

After all, paying for a search consultant, moving an executive’s boat and wine collection from California along with mortgage assistance and other relocation expenses are the least of it. The cost to a company of losing of a key leader in a pivotal role is hard to measure, but certainly the impact of the loss is far more consequential than mere recruiting expenses.

In response, most savvy companies today adopt a more effective and longer lasting solution. They develop HR systems and policies that require the organization to first identify high-potential employees from inside their organization, find opportunities for developmental assignments to round-out the employee’s background then promote these individuals from within the organization to increasingly higher-level positions.

Of course, this is not a panacea, but it has proven to be an effective management tool for conserving and cultivating key human resources in large organizations while, at the same time, improving workforce moral.

In companies where there is no “promote from within” policy, persistent turnover usually results in management taking a few immediate, targeted steps to understand and correct the problem.

First, they will examine the composition of the job itself: Is the “span of control” of the job too broad? Is there adequate support to allow the incumbent to focus primarily on the most significant issues? Often, the position’s “reporting relationship” is the problem – i.e. Who’s the boss? Is it a single unified entity or a divided committee? Is the supervisor micromanaging the job and requiring prior approval for every decision?

In any case, top management will want to ensure that any new hire, no matter how seasoned, gets a designated high-level “advocate” or mentor who knows the organization, will nurture and support the new hire and help him or her navigate potential mine-fields as they become familiar with the culture
of the company.

More importantly, in response to repeated turnover, management will try to uncover the “real” reason for the departure, initially with an “exit interview,” then by reaching out to prior incumbents of the job and tactfully exploring the underlying roots for their departure. Because most professionals don’t want to “burn bridges,” it takes a special aptitude to uncover the truth of why the person resigned from a critical position. Once, when I was performing this task as an HR executive (now retired), the former employee told me that, despite our success, he considered our company to be a “loose affiliation of warring tribes”. Clearly indicating cultural “issues”.

When all is said and done, the decision to leave any position is generally based on a combination of factors, most – if not all of which – could have been avoided.

With that said, here are a few suggestions the BOE might consider before launching their next recruitment effort:

• Before even hiring a search consultant, its first important for someone in the organization to conduct a serious, effort to develop and use a network of external contacts to locate candidates. This is an assignment that should involve all knowledgeable parties, including ex-colleagues, fellow conference attendees even ex-employees who have gained experience elsewhere.

• If possible select someone local, from the east coast if possible. While not important to everyone, regional differences in culture, attitude and social manners are important to some. And that adjustment can be difficult
and a direct reason for an employee leaving and wanting to find a job back home.

• If you use a search consultant, negotiate a significant “guarantee period,” and ensure that the consultant provides the full background of all family circumstances that might affect employment.

• Once hired, make sure the new incumbent has the necessary resources to succeed in the job. One good approach is to assign a high-potential employee to work for the new executive, carrying out routine management functions, while the new executive is freed up to concentrate on the big picture issues. Rather than being a waste of resources, this is both support for the new
executive and a key learning experience for the hi-potential staff member,perhaps positioning him or her for greater challenges down the line.

• Designate one person to act as day-to-day mentor, whom the new incumbent can go to for advice and to guide the new executive through the bureaucracy.

• Lastly, don’t accept any candidate who will not commit to move into Town immediately; commuting relationships can signal lack of commitment.

Here’s wishing our BOE the best in their effort to identify and recruit a strong and talented superintendent. I hope they will find some of these suggestions helpful.