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How Sexy Is Your Company?

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By Jack Cumming

In a recent posting, Denise Boudreau Scott, a leading cultural advisor to senior housing enterprises, cites an intriguing Gallup finding. The Gallup study concludes that “Highly talented employees who are not engaged were among those who had the highest turnover in each organization -- on par with low talent, disengaged employees. In other words, when your best employees are not engaged, they are as likely to leave your organization as your employees who tend to have performance issues and are unhappy." How does this resonate with you in your own career thinking? Is your company still sexy? Does it still appeal to you?

Worker retention and motivation is an increasingly pointed challenge for senior housing enterprises. There may be many reasons for this: low pay, hard work, unpleasant work, challenging night hours, lack of career paths, thwarted advancement, etc. Denise and the Gallup study, though, focus attention on a critical sub-element of the problem, namely, the difficulty in retaining and motivating those with the most promise. This is critical because those capable people, as they move into leadership posts, are the very sorts of managers who can inspire lower level staff to stay with an organization.

The Bad Drives Out the Good

Robert Townsend, in his book, "Up the Organization,” which was popular at one time as are the leadership books of today, posited Gresham’s Law of Management, which he stated as “The bad drives out the good.” Gresham, himself, of course, noted that this was true of currency, “bad money drives out good". If gold and silver are in circulation, people will hoard the gold and spend the silver.

It’s only natural that people seek the opportunity that best benefits them. There are variations on the Townsend formulation, but the message is that mediocre managers lead mediocre organizations. Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame wrote: “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.” Ambitious people seek opportunity and avoid organizations in which talent is not given primacy.

I learned this when I was in the Marine Corps Platoon Leader Corps preparing for a Marine Corps commission. I confess that I was both young and ambitious. We were told that Marine Corps advancement was by seniority . . . at that time six years to Captain, six more years to Major, six more years to Lt. Colonel, unless you did something that offended your boss and gave you a bad fitness report. In that case, you fell off the career ladder and would probably leave the Marine Corps at midlife. From the way I tell the tale, you can tell that was unappealing to a young person of ambition, and I didn’t make a career in the Marine Corps, though those who did are happy with their choice.

Learning from The Marines

I use the Marine Corps here to explore the labor challenge because it is an instructive case study. First, I can think of no other organization that has more solid esprit de corps than the Marine Corps. It has a long and proud history of excellence. That’s at the enterprise level. Organizational excellence, though – whether in business or elsewhere – exists on at least three philosophical planes.

  1. What is the reputation of the organization? Is it an elite enterprise that people trust, with a reputation for getting the job done more effectively than its peers? These are lead organizations.

  2. What is the change culture of the organization? Is the enterprise known as a leader? Is it the innovator that everyone else seeks to emulate? Does it produce better outcomes more efficiently? Are its employees and adherents growing and developing faster than do those in peer organizations? These are change organizations.

  3. What is the individual culture of the organization? Do employees move in lockstep or is individual excellence recognized and rewarded? Does the organization demand outstanding potential in its selection processes? What is the caliber of the training opportunities offered to employees? Are there fast track opportunities that allow people with special gifts to advance commensurate with their performance? These are opportunity organizations.

The Marine Corps is tops as a lead organization. You can often spot a Marine merely by the professionalism of his or her appearance and bearing. The Marine Corps is slower as a change organization. It is steeped in tradition and famed for training programs that teach how to fight the last war. It has a mixed reputation, ironically, as an opportunity organization. Its training programs to prepare warriors are second to none. What it lacks are those fast-track opportunities which are critical to retaining and motivating people who are best suited to leadership.

How Does Your Organization Act?

You can apply these same standards to your own organization in deciding whether this is where you want to spend the next several years. If it’s a lead organization, like the Marine Corps, you will gain employable value merely by having served. Marines who leave the service generally do well in civilian life. If it’s a change organization, you will learn to be adaptable and to be able to distinguish constructive change from change just for its own sake. But, most important, for you as a talented individual will be the third organizational quality, that of opportunity.

If it’s not an organization that is going to develop you to the fullest extent of your potential and gives you educational and experience opportunities to grow – say by attendance at industry conferences or by functional rotations within the enterprise – then it’s probably not a good place in which to build a career. There are organizations that endure for decades as havens for mediocrity. If your goal is personal growth, you’ll best be served in an organization that strives for excellence not only in its self-descriptions but by its actions and reputation as well.

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