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More Inspiring Leadership = Retaining Talent Strategy??by zengerfolkman December 4, 2009

It pained me to title this blog entry using a mathematical equation because I know some people really struggle with math.   My wife, Sue, for instance, would be happy to declare our home a no-math-zone.  For those like her (and you know who you are), you’ll appreciate the answer one math-challenged student gave her instructor when she was asked in front of the class to calculate how many seconds there are in a year.  She thought for only a moment, and then quickly replied, “Twelve.  January 2nd, February 2nd, March 2nd . . .”

But that equation in the title presents some interesting possibilities for those of you concerned with how you’ll retain your top talent.  Some of our recent leadership research focused on the impact that leaders who are able to inspire and motivate others have in the workplace. There is an intriguing link between inspiring leadership and talent retention.

One of the things that caught our eyes as we looked at the large amount of empirical, real-world client data we have on leadership was this ability to inspire others.  We were fascinated when we discovered that it was the leadership competency that had the single greatest impact on employee engagement and commitment.

What makes that so interesting when thinking about talent retention strategies is that there are numerous studies that link increased levels of employee engagement and commitment to reduced levels of employee turnover (see, for example, The Employee-Customer-Profit Chain at Sears, Rucci, A.J., Kirn, S.P., Quinn, R.T., Harvard Business Review, January 1998).   I think our own experiences would suggest, even in the absence of hard data, that this is true -- the happier and more engaged we are with our jobs, the less likely it is that we’ll be look for a different one.   

My conclusion and own experiences are that there is a direct link between our ability to inspire those we lead, to how engaged and committed they are, to the likelihood that we can keep them excited and employed in our organization.  Sounds like the basis for a talent retention strategy.

So, How Can I be More Inspiring?  Great, you say. That leads me right to needing to be a more inspiring leader so my people will be more engaged and committed, and they’ll be less likely to leave for greener pastures.  So how do I do that?

We’ve found in our research that a number of behaviors are highly correlated with those perceived as being inspiring leaders.  I’ll talk about just two of those here that are noteworthy to me – the importance of setting stretch goals and our ability to foster innovation

Setting Stretch Goals.  Being skillful at setting stretch goals may seem counter-intuitive to those leaders wanting to be more inspiring to those they lead.  You mean I’m supposed to ask people to tackle tougher challenges, to climb hills they’ve never climbed before, to achieve results they may not currently think are possible? And not only will they not be discouraged, they’ll be more inspired and motivated?  Our research shows that if you do it right, if you set the right stretch goals, then the answer is. . . yes. 

So how do I “do it right”?  Steve Kerr, former Chief Learning Officer at General Electric, once offered what I think are a few great suggestions on how to set great stretch goals.  You can jot these down as reference ideas as you lay out your I-need-more-stretch-in-the-goals strategy.

Kerr said to do it right, you’ll want to set extremely ambitious targets that you don’t yet know how you’ll reach, but:

1)   Don’t set goals that stress people crazily.
2)  If you do set goals that stretch them or stress them crazily, don’t punish failure.
3)  If you’re going to ask them to do what they have never done, give them whatever tools and help you can.

You can read more about what he suggests in his article, Stretch Goals:  The Dark side of Asking for Miracles (Fortune Magazine, November 13, 1995).  He’s got some great ideas.

Fostering Innovation.  One of the other behaviors that is highly correlated with inspiring leaders is the ability to foster innovation.  Why would that be?  Lots of different reasons, but what’s clear is that most people get very excited about working in an environment when they can participate in new, novel, and pioneering activities. 

There are some critical innovation questions that follow for the leader. Here are two I think important:  what am I doing personally to be a role model for innovation, and what am I doing to create an environment where innovation is encouraged and rewarded?

There are warehouses full of ideas on how to be a role model for innovation and how to create an innovative environment.  I’m going to completely ignore all of those here.  Instead, I’m going to close this blog entry by simply sharing one of my favorite stories about innovation.  It was insightful to me and I hope it will be for you.  It comes from Rich Baker, CEO at Glance (, in a newsletter article he sent out in 2006.  I’ve adapted it slightly here:

“In October, 1903, Professor Samuel Langley, Director of the Smithsonian Institution, was on the verge of flying the first self-propelled manned Great Aerodrome . . . he enjoyed the deep pockets of eager investors.

Engines in that era could produce only a few dozen horsepower – too little to get a flying machine aloft from a standing start. So most designs, including Langley’s, relied upon a catapult device to give the airframe an initial boost down the “runway.”

Langley plowed half of his $50,000 US Government war department grant into the world’s most sophisticated steam-powered catapult, mounted on a barge 20 feet above the waterline. The catapult worked, but his plane could not withstand its tremendous acceleration, crumpling before it even reached the end of the track. A second attempt three months later again collapsed the fragile airframe, this time nearly costing the pilot’s life.

Said one Congressman, “You tell Langley for me that the only thing he ever made fly was Government money.” Having spent all his funds, Langley abandoned his quest.

Just nine days later, at Kitty Hawk, two unknown, uneducated and unfunded brothers completed the world’s first manned powered flight. Their plane, the Flyer, took off down a wooden track pointed into a stiff breeze.

To launch their Flyer, the Wrights had also invented the world’s first successful aviation catapult.  In contrast to Langley’s creation, the Wright’s catapult was a model of simplicity.

Their Flyer sat on one end of a 50-foot long wooden track. A half-inch cable looped from its nose to a pulley at the far end of the track and back again – underneath the track – to a wooden derrick behind the plane. There the cable laced through a double-pulley to a 1400 pound weight, hoisted 17 feet up the derrick.

As the pilot gunned the aeroplane’s engine, an assistant released the weight. Each foot it dropped pulled the tiny flying machine three feet closer to the end of the track. Since gravity imparts a constant force, the aeroplane’s acceleration down the track was also constant, minimizing stress on its fragile airframe. (In contrast, Langley’s catapult delivered maximum acceleration in the initial moments.)

The catapult’s cost? The brothers spent $4 for the wooden track and perhaps $50 for the catapult. The Wright’s entire effort cost less than $1000. A year later, their planes were making five-mile long flights, and a year after that, 20 to 25 miles at a time.”

I hope these thoughts give you some ideas for your quest to retain your top talent.  Good luck!

—Bob Sherwin, COO

Employee retention begins with Extraordinary Leadership. To learn how your leadership can affect those you lead,  learn about our Inspiring Leader Development Plan or call us with questions.


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