Among senior leaders, a shift is underway from looking at their business structure through the lens of efficiency to seeing their team as a vital component in staying ahead of the competition. But how can talent be retained? In a guest column, Bryony Wright, of international executive coaching firm The Preston Associates, argues team-builders need to look beyond simple remuneration.

When I meet senior business leaders for the first time, I often ask what keeps them awake at night. Two to three years ago the answer was often to do with the need to drive efficiency by re-structuring and reducing headcount, while knowing the devastating impact this could have on people’s lives. 

But more recently there has been a shift.

In the current climate of uncertainty and constant change, leaders are increasingly looking at how they can hold onto their top performers and maximise productivity to drive business growth.

The new concerns can be summed up thus: “We’re as lean as we can be, so how do we continue to increase our performance and stay ahead of the game? Our business is driven by our people, but I’m worried that our key team players might be poached by our competitors.”

In the past, the solution often focused on rewarding high performers by paying them more – the bonus culture. But modern behavioural scientists point to research that contradicts this traditional thinking. Leaders that rely on money as the main lever to promote loyalty and hold onto their top talent are only using about 20% of their toolbox. People also want and value the following from their work: teamwork, respect, self-esteem, space to act, fair treatment, meaningful relationships, experiences, friendship, work/life integration, learning, consistency, recognition and fun.

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In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink argues the key to engaging and retaining top people is to fulfil three key motivators: our desires for autonomy, mastery and purpose. 

But how do we do that?

Autonomy: empowerment through trust

Let’s start with our desire for autonomy. This is about giving people space to act: developing a culture of empowering leadership that must start at the top. Authentic leaders who truly respect and want to develop their people understand that business performance depends on trust, not micro-management. 

Leaders that role-model active listening, asking the right questions, being consistent and giving regular feedback encourage their people to find and implement the right solutions. This is giving autonomy – and it maximises engagement, inspires loyalty and drives growth. 

To do this, we have to create a psychologically safe environment at work where trust can flourish. Many of us have experience of businesses where inter-personal suspicions, hidden agendas and fear have stifled innovation and bred discontent. But the joy of an environment where you can say what you think without fear of ridicule and take moderate risks because failure is an opportunity to grow is truly motivating. It enables you to be your authentic self at work.

Trust, in its turn, is also the key to psychological safety – and it has to be extended from the top. A high-trust environment engenders teamwork, innovation, self-esteem, learning. It also brings speed and greater performance.

I’ve been working with a cross-functional project team in a food sector multinational for the last 18 months. The team has been working under immense performance expectations since the beginning. The challenge was it was a brand new team of five different nationalities, based in three different international offices, most of whom had never worked together before. But, by focusing on building trust quickly and developing a safe culture that encourages feedback and courageous conversations, this ‘virtual’ team has been able to work at pace under intense pressure and are on track to implement a major transformation across the business. 

Mastery: investing in leadership development

Mastery is effectively the continual quest for self-improvement. This desire is reflected in the recent trends for healthy eating – superfoods, nurturing gut health for better digestion and so on – but it is also significant at an intellectual level. Put simply, people get a kick out of learning new things and improving at what they do. Yet this motivator is often over-looked in business, particularly as people move up through the higher ranks of an organisation. 

Most modern businesses work as meritocracies. As employees become more competent through a combination of training and experience they are promoted. But how do we continue to support senior managers to become effective leaders? 

Training is useful to drive greater technical competence, but attitude or mindset is the key to great leadership and performance. Attitude manifests itself in behaviours, which are difficult to learn and embed through training alone. This is where 1:1 coaching can add value – whether from a line manager, an internal or an external coach – taking people from good to great by shining a light on behaviours that may affect their leadership potential and exploring limiting beliefs that may be holding them back. 

Purpose: sharing our vision

Finally, purpose. I find this a very interesting motivator, having witnessed it becoming a strong driver particularly among the millennial generation, both from my own experience as a former business leader and from my coaching practice. In the food sector it is interesting to see how this growing need for purpose has mirrored the increase in ethical consumerism. Perhaps it is not surprising that a growing cohort of young talent want to see sustainability and transparency extended to their employment. 

However, it is not just millennials; people of all ages want to have an impact on something larger than themselves. Progressive employers are increasingly responsive to this need – just look at the growth of the B Corp – but there is still a very long way to go.

Even without an overt company vision to make the world a better place, all leaders can help satisfy this desire for purpose. Communicating openly, honestly and at an emotional level with your people about where the company is going and the difference it wants to make to its customers is a good start. Then helping them to understand how the business will achieve its vision – and the impact they can each make on that progress – makes the sense of purpose both tangible and personal.

So if you lie awake at night worrying that your competitors are knocking on the doors of your brightest talent, think how you can best engage and invest in your people to create a culture based on high trust that fulfils their needs in the broadest sense. This is the way to ensure they not only refuse to take that call but also become loyal, highly motivated leaders, driving your business for the future.

Bryony Wright is an executive coach at international coaching specialists The Preston Associates, based in London.