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Three Secrets to Improving Employee Retention

In the past two articles, we talked about ways for folks to prep if they’re searching for a new job. But what if you have the opposite problem? What if you’re a supervisor who doesn’t want to lose any of your team? If that’s you, keep reading.

Yes, in our field there are times where it’s natural for a team member to decide it’s time to move on. We can’t expect people to stay in entry level jobs forever, and to a certain extent part of our job as a supervisor is to prepare our team members for their next steps. In those situations, people are generally open with their supervisor about their search. You may be bummed you’ll be losing Betsy, but it’s not a surprise.

But sometimes the first you hear about someone leaving is when you get their two-week notice. That’s not a great situation to be in. Just this morning I saw an article in the Chronicle titled, “Right Now, Your Best Employees Are Eyeing the Exits.” If you’ve had any time to listen to the news, you know we’re in the midst of the Great Resignation or Reshuffle – whatever you want to call it. People are exhausted from working insane hours for low pay, especially when they don’t feel like they’re in a supportive environment. Maybe you’ve even been thinking about your exit. But even if you haven’t, you need to be aware that folks – maybe your folks – are looking for other jobs even if they haven’t told you.

When people suddenly leave, you’re already behind looking for their replacement. That is, if you even get to replace them. With lower enrollments and budgets, sometimes you don’t. Even if you do get to hire someone, it takes time to review and post the job description, comb through resumes, do the first round of interviews, maybe a second, invite people to campus, etc. Typically, that’s at least two months when things go well.

But these days, I’ve heard far too many stories about job searches not going well. Some have to reposted because they didn’t get the type of candidates they were looking for. Other people get solid candidates, but they decline the position because of the salary or other benefits. It’s a terrible place to be if you’re the hiring manager who just needs a qualified person back in the office.

Now I’m not trying to scare you, but I want you to be aware that when team members leave it’s a problem for you, your team, and students. Other people have to pick up the slack. And if you get to hire someone, it can still be quite a while – even years before the new person has the same knowledge, skill set, and productivity level as the person who left. All of this can negatively impact your team, your students, and you. The last thing you want is to find yourself in the position of unexpectedly losing a staff member.

So, what can you do to keep this from happening? Here’s the thing, when people “suddenly” leave, it’s usually because there’s something wrong. You may have heard the saying, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” Now that’s not the only reason people leave, but it’s an important one. It’s certainly the reason I left campus. So, let’s break that down.

Gallup has found that direct supervisors account for 70% of variation in employee engagement. That means you have a huge impact on your team’s engagement level. Now you may be thinking, “But I don’t even have that much power or control! Why would my impact be so high?” That’s a valid question.

Think about your experience with your own supervisor. You know they can’t control everything, but the impact they have on you is tremendous. They’re the funnel through which you experience the rest of the organization. Their behavior and decisions impact you on a daily basis. Do they advocate for you? Do they deal with problems promptly? Do you feel like they support you, both in doing your current job and in helping you grow as a professional? You may think, “My supervisor is a good person and is just doing the best they can,” but at the end of the day that doesn’t make them a good supervisor, does it?

That leads me to the second point I want to make about people leaving managers. No matter how well intentioned you may be, if you don’t get the right training and support to develop the skills and systems you need as a supervisor, there’s a good chance you’re not doing it right. Most supervisors do not get the training or support they need to be effective. It’s just that simple.

I’m sure you’re doing your best. I’m sure you’re doing some things well. But you don’t know what you don’t know. And that can mean the difference between team members wanting to stay in their jobs or leaving. And unfortunately, you don’t always find that out until people leave.

That’s the bad news. But this episode is about improving employee retention, right? So, let’s jump into what you can do to keep those valuable employees right where they are – supporting your team, your organization, and your students.

One | Focus on Employee Engagement

I mentioned that supervisors have a huge impact on employee engagement. We tend to focus on student engagement, but employee engagement is just as important. Actually, I’d argue it’s more important, because how engaged your employees are directly impacts student engagement, which impacts that all important student retention.

What does this look like in practice? In a nutshell, engagement means how invested you are with your company or your job. When you’re not engaged with where you work, you aren’t as productive, creative, or positive. That means team members who aren’t engaged aren’t getting as much done. They aren’t trying to find creative solutions to problems. They aren’t making as much of an impact on students or your team. And they’re having more negative encounters with the people in their path.

I’ve already done a full episode on engagement, so be sure to go back and listen Episode 14 to get more details. But in short, you need to start focusing on employee engagement as much as you worry about student retention. Engaged employees help you retain students.

Even if you don’t feel empowered in your job overall, you have the ability to impact each employee’s engagement level. The easiest place to start is with Gallup’s Q12 Engagement Survey Questions. It breaks down twelve areas that have the greatest impact on engagement. Again, I go over those in Episode 14, so be sure to check it out.

Two | Become a Better Supervisor

As I mentioned earlier, supervisors rarely get the training or support they need to be successful. That’s not your fault. When you first became a supervisor, you were probably surprised that no one explained how to actually do that. You might have tried to get support, but everyone was too busy – or perhaps more honestly, they didn’t really know how to help.

You’ve had to figure things out on your own. Again, I’m sure there are things you are doing well. But now is the time to build on those pieces. The more you learn about what effective supervisors do, the better systems you can put into place to become a more effective yourself.

Yes, you’re busy. But you’re going to be even more busy if your folks leave – especially your high performers. And part of the reason you are so busy is because you haven’t gotten training to help you prioritize, set up effective systems, delegate, and to assess what you and your team are doing now to make sure it’s actually worth doing. Instead of just keep trying to keep your head above water, invest in the knowledge and skills you need to be more effective.

Now of course there’s still the problem of where to get this training. Honestly, there isn’t a lot of great supervisor training out there. You want something that’s backed by the research and that gives you practical tools to implement what you’ve learned. After all, learning something doesn’t bring change. Acting on it does. I worked for years to find different resources that would help me be a better supervisor, but I had to put those pieces together myself and figure out how to get those pieces in place.

That’s why I recommend the training we do at Strengths University. We take a wholistic and Strengths-based approach and applied it to everything I’ve researched over the past three year. We use it in all of our programs and workshops. We do individual work, as well as group workshops. But if you don’t have the resources or support to do something with your team, I’d recommend the Supervisor Strengths Institute. It’s an eight-week course that combines online, asynchronous learning with group and individual support calls to keep you on track and make sure you’re implementing what you learn. We’re currently enrolling for our summer session. You can find out more information here. If you’re interested in doing individual work or work with your team, you can contact me at

But however you get that training, you need to start investing in yourself as a supervisor. Funds may be limited, and you might be tempted to spend that money on your team. But think about what’s going to have the biggest impact on them in the long run. Remember how much of an impact you have on your direct employees.

Three | Increase Your Self-Care

Okay, so the first two secrets to improving employee retention may have left you feeling overwhelmed. I completely get that. Again, my preamble about how “your people might be plotting to leave right now,” wasn’t to scare you, but rather get you to make some meaningful changes that will positively impact you and them. But yes, those things are going to take time and energy.

The good news is the third secret is much less work for you, although I’m guessing just as challenging. That secret is more self-care. Now I’ve done episodes on self-care as well, but you might be thinking, *eye roll* “Great another person talking about self-care. If I had time to take care of myself, I would.”

Maybe that’s true. I mean think back pre-pandemic or even pre-enrollment decline in higher ed. How much self-care did you do back then? My guess is maybe slightly more, but still not enough. I also don’t think we’re using the same definition of self-care.

First, I want you to think about self-care as anything that helps you be your best self. Sometimes that could be a more stereotypical self-care act, like a massage, going running, doing yoga, or taking a nap. But that’s not all it is. If your talents are getting in your way – aka showing up as weaknesses – and causing you stress and frustration, investing in coaching or training is self-care. If you have trouble being assertive, which again is adding to your stress and negatively impacting your relationships, taking the time to do some work on that is self-care.

Second, I want you to stop thinking about self-care as an “if I have time” activity. Self-care needs to be a priority. It needs to be a daily practice. Having a massage once a month is nice and better than nothing, but it’s not helping you be your best self every day. And your best self isn’t about being your best for everyone else, it’s about being your best self for you. Others will inevitably benefit, but that’s a side effect.

Why is this so important? Now I’ve said this in many previous episodes, but when you’re stressed – aka stuck in fight or flight – you’re not your best self. It might even be the worst version of yourself. Fight or flight was meant to be a brief physiological reaction to a life-or-death situation. If a saber tooth tiger jumped out of the conference room closet, your subconscious brain would immediately go, “Holy BLEEP,” send those fight or flight hormones surging through your body, and shift the blood flow from your viscera and brain to your extremities so you can fight or flee.

After the tiger is gone, your body is supposed to reset. The blood is supposed to go back to your viscera and brain. The hormones, like adrenalin and cortisol, are supposed to go back to normal levels so we can go into rest and growth mode.

But that’s not happening for most of us. Instead, we’re stuck in fight or flight, where all of our resources are focused on battling the thing that we think is a threat. That impacts our ability to make good long-term decisions. It impacts our relationships with others. It keeps us focused on things that seem important, but probably aren’t. Growth – both physical and professional are difficult, if not impossible.

For you to be your best self, you have to get out of fight or flight which means self-care. It’s a necessity, not something that would be nice. And just like with spending those limited budget dollars on training for you seems selfish, creating space for self-care might seem that way as well. But the opposite is true. Self-care puts you back in a mindset and a physiological space to be a better supervisor. Even if you get great training, if you’re too stressed to absorb or implement it, nothing is going to change.

Okay, so those are the three secrets to improving employee retention. If you want your people to stay where they are – serving your team and your students, you need to start focusing on employee engagement; get research-based, supervisor training so you can become a more effective supervisor; and you need to make self-care a daily practice, so you can be your best self.

FYI - If you’re going to ACPA22 in St. Louis, we’re going to be presenting a session on, Refocusing on Employee Engagement Ensures Team, Student, and Institutional Success, on Wednesday, March 9 at 9:45AM in rooms 265/266. We’re officially endorsed by the Mid-Level Community of Practice. As the title implies, we’ll be going deeper on employee engagement, so please join us if you can.

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