Your #1 Talent Retention Threat Is Not What You Think It Is

Employers who want to attract, inspire, and retain their absolute best talent must connect with them on the playing field of their personal purpose in life. Help them see how what they do for you serves their big, epic, life-size sense of personal purpose and mission

“Have you ever watched The Profit?” my friend and financial advisor guru, Kate Stalter, president of Better Money Decisions, just caught me lazily waving my remote control in the general direction of the tv. I’m not a channel surfer, so she rightly figured that I would be open to some specific suggestions. And because she is one of the few people I know here in Santa Fe who is more likely to watch CNBC than a local access chat show about crystals and dreamcatchers, I’m open to her ideas.

The Profit, as it turns out, is not The Prophet (a step in the right direction right there). You probably know it. It features serial entrepreneur Marcus Lemonis, who takes on troubled small businesses and tries to set them to rights again. The drama is where he delivers hard emotional truths to company leaders and brave faces melt in a mudslide of tears.

While scrolling through the On Demand selection from past seasons, I spotted an episode that featured the founder of Farmgirl Flowers. Since I love the bouquets Farmgirl features in its Facebook ads, and since I’m, in fact, a girl, I said, “Let’s watch this one first!” And so we did.

Inside the first couple of minutes I went from “Oh that’s so cool!” to “Oh…that’s too bad.” Here’s why: The first moments of the story were about how a perfectly great employer lost a talented, hard-working, visionary, passionate employee because Farmgirl Flowers founder, Christina Stempel, needed to go somewhere where she could “actually do something good in the world.”

Yay for Farmgirl Flowers. Too bad for Stanford University. She had been Director of Alumni Relations and Campaign Outreach for Stanford’s law school. And to hear her tell her story just briefly on Episode 20 of Season 3 of The Profit, it would appear that Stanford might have failed to help her connect what she did there with “actually doing something good in the world.” So she turned to flowers.

I see it all the time. Fabulous organizations of all sorts spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on employee engagement initiatives but still lose their best talent. Why? Because they don’t help their employees connect what they do with helping make the world a better place – in the context of what’s essential to them. You know the story of the three masons, right? One mason says he makes bricks for a living. Cool. Another mason says he’s making a wall with the brick. Yeah, okay. The third mason points to the cathedral under construction and says, “I’m making that.” That third mason is going to be the one who sticks around for the long haul. You want that guy.

When your employees tell their friends what they do for a living, do they talk bricks? Or do they talk cathedrals? And if they talk cathedrals…is it the cathedral that actually resonates with them personally? How do you know for sure?

Here’s the core message of this article (in case you’re too busy to read the whole shebang…but if you stop here, you’ll miss an amazing video at the end):

Employers who want to attract, inspire, and retain their absolute best talent must connect with them on the playing field of their personal purpose in life. Help them see how what they do for you serves their big, epic, life-size sense of personal purpose and mission.

How do you crack that nut? You get them to open up by asking them the right questions in a safe, sincerely curious environment. One on one.

I get it. This approach isn’t as efficient as scores on spreadsheets (which are also essential, don’t get me wrong). But how efficient is it to lose hard-won talented individuals who are so passionate about doing something that makes a larger difference in the world that they will leave a cushy berth like Stanford, taking huge personal risks in the service of the vision and mission closest to their hearts? Aren’t these the people you would do almost anything to keep?

The Why That Makes Them Cry

“You suck!”

As much as I hate that expression, especially when it’s aimed at me, I have to say this is one of my top five favorite moments in my entire career of interviewing employees who love their work. I love it so much I have to repeatedly talk myself out of turning it into a ring tone for my phone. (It wouldn’t go over well if my phone rang while I’m standing in line, say, at the post office.)

“I promised myself I wouldn’t cry!,” said my interviewee, a manager at Rackspace, a managed cloud computing company outside of San Antonio. (I had already been at Rackspace for a couple of weeks, interviewing employees who love their work there. And word had gotten out that tissues were involved. Not that I intentionally go for the cheap emotional jugular, it just turns out that way sometimes.)

This choked-up outburst came after a few awkward moments of silence after I asked him a simple question, “When was the last time you were deeply proud to be a Racker?” He was so quiet for so long, I worried for a moment there that he was having trouble thinking of a time. As it happened, he was having trouble reclaiming some equanimity so he wouldn’t answer my question through a squeak of emotion.

And this was a moment of sweet satisfaction to me. Several years earlier, while I was living in Silicon Valley, a well-meaning CHRO of a household-name tech firm tried to warn me off this quixotic mission of capturing the sound of personal passion and purpose among the techies there.

“Really, Martha, these software engineer types aren’t interested in saving the world or helping humanity,” she said. “They just want to work hard on the next big thing, cash out, get rich, and be on to the next idea. It’s all about getting rich here.” Judging from the MSRP of the cars in the Whole Foods parking lot in Los Gatos, where I lived, I wondered if she was right. I was still new in town, driving a second-hand Saturn. What did I know?

So there I was a couple of years later, just being told I suck by this techie manager guy at Rackspace’s San Antonio headquarters. True, San Antonio isn’t Cupertino. But otherwise the conditions were the same – a global high-tech company just on the verge of going public. This manager was a transplanted Manhattanite. So it’s all about getting rich, right?

Nope. It was all about telling me the story he wanted to tell without breaking down into the humiliating guy-cry. The time he was the most proud of being a Racker, he said, was when his hard-working team of techies as a group told him they wanted to forego their budgeted summer blow-out and use the money instead to refurbish a nearby elementary school that was down at the heels. Instead of beer and brats, the money was spent on paint, push brooms, and potted plants. A hot, sweaty, filthy, San Antonio summer day that might otherwise have been celebrated rafting on the river was invested in making a public school bright, clean and cheerful for the incoming crowd of kids.

And here he is, months later, telling me how proud he is of his coworkers and their community spirit of sacrifice.

Afterwards, I walked back out to my car to drive back to my hotel. And I reflected back to my Silicon Valley CHRO friend and thought, “heh.” A little too smugly, I have to confess.

The Undeniable Big Three (and One Bonus)

“Come on, Martha, how many people in the U.S. do you think really like their work?” a skeptical reporter was trying to get me to validate this roadtrip I was about to embark on with statistics.

“It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “If there is only one, I want to find that person and find out what the deal is.” It was 1999, my first book was published, and I was about to hit the road. My mission: To interview ordinary Americans who love their jobs. My MO: To get the word out via national media, which ultimately landed a feature on NPR. Which, in turn, resulted in 4,000 emails in my inbox the morning after the program aired. From all over the country. With the same message: Pick me!

Over the years, since I launched that roadtrip, I have interviewed

  • A CHRO who, as a child, survived a Japanese concentration camp during WW2;
  • A young woman who thought she wanted to be a beautician until she discovered that her calling was taking care of homeless animals at the Asheville, NC, animal shelter;
  • A Columbus, OH, factory worker whose CEO turned his life around when he noticed the man didn’t know how to read and the pair began a company-sponsored school to teach others to read;
  • A Cuban secretary in Miami who dreamed of bringing his entire family across the water to the United States;
  • A Pixar executive who told the story of how the entire company rallied around one employee whose baby was in critical condition at the hospital;
  • The PR executive at Chicago’s Ravinia Music Festival who told the story of how he dreamed of being part of the wonderful world of music as an impoverished kid who would take multiple city buses to get to the park so he could lie on the grass and let the music wash over him. The path he engineered to get his adult self into the Ravinia world threw up barriers at every turn (come to find out, the music world didn’t need another earnest but so-so trombonist). But all his random, make-ends-meet-while-I-keep-my-dream-alive, survival steps ultimately led him there as the PR person;
  • A young Chinese woman who found work at a Pasadena-based consumer company as a way to escape a government that would ignite the massacre at Tiananman Square;
  • A Muslim security expert in Silicon Valley who took the advice of his Secret Service friends and changed his name after 9/11 so he could stay in his profession. The name he chose, he said, reflects the peaceful joining of the world’s three largest religions. Why? Because he loved his work. And he wanted it to count for something.
  • The hospital parking lot attendant in Boise who loves his work because he knows his friendly, upbeat welcome sets the tone for anxiety-ridden patients who are arriving, not knowing what the day will bring;
  • A hairdresser in Hawaii whose proudest moment was when she helped an abused woman restore her appearance. And this stylist told me that it wasn’t the new do that made her proud of her work. It was the fact that she knew that this woman would be able to proudly appear in family photos and for generations afterward, people would see her picture and tell the story about how this heroic woman prevailed against the most violent of circumstances.

So. Do any single one of these people I interview rave on about their salary, stock options, retirement benefits, health care, dental, or preferred parking space?


This is what they talk about.

I love my work because it:

Relieves pain.

Restores hope.

Brings beauty to the world.

That’s it.

Well, there’s one more: “I love my work because it helps me love my life. I see now how all the twists and turns of my life have brought me here. And it all makes sense.”

I think back on Farmgirl Flowers’ entrepreneurial founder and wonder if anyone at the Stanford University law school took the time to help her see that the funds she was raising might have relieved someone’s pain, restored someone’s hope, or brought beauty into someone’s world. And if the law school had, might she have stayed because she was “actually doing good in the world?”

Well, flowers are nice, too.


What Difference Do You Want to Make Through Your Work?

If you’re tempted to say, “Yeah but, my people are different…” think about your own career/life journey. You want to be able to look back on your career days and be able to say, “Yeah…I made a difference in ways that spoke from my heart.” Come on. I know you do. So do your people.

In her poem, The Summer Day, Mary Oliver wrote the hit-between-the-eyes challenge line:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

As a friend of mine told me the other day, “We’re all burning daylight.” The more in touch we are with our unique life’s purpose, the more acutely aware we are when our jobs do or don’t help us serve that purpose. And the more desperate we are to not waste our lives doing work that doesn’t speak to us.

The pressure to move on rises when we just can’t connect what we do with our heart’s urgings. And the days, weeks, months, years are getting away from us.

If you’re reading this piece – especially all the way down to the end – I’m assuming you’re in leadership and you have people. Recognize that each one of them is pursuing their own epic, heroic mission in life. Give them the chance to tell you what it is. Give them the chance to connect their personal life’s purpose with the work they do for you every day.

What’s in it for you? You will keep that precious talent. Which means that you don’t have to spend your time searching for their replacements.

And then you can use that time investing your own wild and precious life in serving your own life’s purpose.

About Martha I. Finney: In addition to writing books on employee engagement, career management and leadership, Martha also helps companies build authentic cultures of employee passion and purpose through her one-on-one interviews and her small group workshop, Career Landscapes.

Learn more about how to bring Martha to your company to capture the authentic voices and stories of employee passion. Contact me at