Adrian Furnham on… The art of talent retention

14 June 2017 -


Keeping the best employees in your workforce instead of losing them to early retirement is something every business needs to master

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

The demographic time-bomb refers to the fact that as baby boomers retire there seems not enough able young people to replace them. Companies rightly worry about replacing the steady hand, the hardworking and loyal older worker. Those with an institutional memory and experience of how to deal with the vicissitudes of business life.

There are only two ways of dealing with the issue. Find more, replacement talent or retain the “oldies” past their retirement date. Much blood, ink and tears, but more importantly money has been spilled in the so-called war for talent. The second question – talent retention – has not received the attention it deserves.

Thanks to modern medicine, the standard of living and taking-on-board health advice many late 50s and early 60s workers remain fit, active and agile. To the great concern of governments and insurance companies, many (indeed most) can look forward to 30 years of a reasonably good life. Some have more of years of retirement than they have had a work. And that is where the arithmetic of both state and private pensions does not add up.

There are now many companies that target the grey market eager to get them to spend their retirement cash and time at particularly places and on particular activities. Magazines are dedicated to this market. They show good looking, fit, oldies enjoying perpetual late summers with friends in beautiful settings. No pipe and slippers, nor the slow decline into poverty, ill-health and dependency.

But the good news for companies is that not all boomers are eager to quit work. Many have always and continue to enjoy their work. Indeed they fight for anti-ageist legislations that prevent people having to retire at some specific age like 65 years. They want to stay on – not only for the money – but for the other benefits of work: social contacts, time structure and rhythm, use of skills, sense of identity.

However many are lured into early retirement by the promises of the good-life. So the problems for the employers is how to retain their talent…..and let go their “less talented”. Of course not all boomers have talent. Some middle aged people have neither the physical or mental agility to deal with new complex issues. Some are worn out. Others were not that hot in the first place.

Hence attractive, severance packages. Their aim was to encourage the “secret list” of sell-by date under-performers to “move on” while keeping those often crucial and irreplaceable experienced managers. And they really back-fire with precisely the opposite happening. The talented trouser the package moving to other jobs because of their attitude and ability. The nyet, alienated and sour oldies dig in knowing they are essentially unemployable.

The issue then is how to retain the good ones. The issue requires companies address, push and pull factors. The first question is why most people leave their jobs. The answer is multi faceted and complex data show people quit because of their immediate boss more than any other factor. They complain of incompetence, being sacrificed to please customers and superiors and of low emotional intelligence. They increasing demands and reduced control – the idea situation for stress to survive. So they quit.

The first, perhaps foremost, talent retention strategy then do not involve anything to do with the oldies but their (inevitably younger) managers. Replace, re-deploy retain poor managers. They are bad for everybody of course, not just the oldies and can cause serious damage. A well managed talented oldie is not only more productive but more likely to stay.

The second strategy is “package adjustment”. This is based on incentivising people by things they want. Some companies wise to this have different career path packages that may be sensitive to demographic issues. Things like women coming back to work after children; skill upgrading in early middle age; periods of part-time working, sabbaticals. Some older people may want a slightly different time schedule or to give up some tasks that stress them most. They may prefer to trade off more technical stuff for the people skills.

But it is unwise to stereotype the boomers. They have different preferences and packages should be flexible. It is often not at all that difficult to accommodate particular wishes to retain older people.

Third there is the issue of special training. Not just re-training. Some jobs change fast as a function of technological, socio-legal or customer demand changes. They have to be done differently. Older people take longer to learn. Amen. They pick up some skills quicker than others. Amen. And they, like everybody else, does not like to feel inadequate, slow or foolish in training sessions.

Boomers are the curious, adventurous generation that challenged authority. Remember their time was the 1970s. They were not scared of change. And nor is the engaged talented, older person. But they can be humiliated by being poorly treated in any training activity. There re many ways to deal with this issue sensitivity and sensibly. Paradoxically the idea of re-training is for many the single best reason to leave the organisation.

Retaining talented people involves understanding their motivational profile. If they have been well-managed, equitably compensated and shown loyalty they are unlikely to jump ship at the first opportunity.

Talent retention as an issue they should not be something aimed at the greying boomers. It is not something aimed at the greying boomers. It is not something that one needs to start doing in the hope of not becoming organisationally amnesic and suddenly unskilled. It should start on the day they arrive. Because talent retention is not an ageist issue.

All people quit organisations with bad bosses. All people leave organisations with inflexible packages and all people leave organisations that don’t understand how to train others. In fact, the young talented people might pack their bags sooner than the oldies who perhaps have a greater sense of loyalty.