Retaining Top Talent: Strategies That Work

Retention is a key part of ROI for LDPs given the significant investment they make. But even leading corporations have a tough time retaining top talent. For young professionals rising through the leadership ranks, the career ladder is likely to include rungs at several internal organizations.

World-class leadership development programs offer intensive career enrichment and professional growth. Still, the siren song of other opportunities can lure participants away. Complicating things are:

  • Participants not getting their first-choice location assignment
  • Generational view of job hopping and expectations for work-life integration
  • LPDs not delivering on program promises
  • Poaching of development talent pools
  • Participants’ restlessness with the pace at which their careers are progressing
  • Personality conflicts between managers and program participants

Fresh MBAs in their late twenties and early thirties may change their minds about where they want to be in the near-term and long-term. Or the optimal next role for them may not be in the city where they want to buy a house or enroll their child in school. In other words, someone wanting to settle down stateside may have to come up with a Plan B if he or she is needed in the Dubai office.

Danaher, the Fortune 500 science and technology powerhouse comprised of more than two dozen operating companies, faces issues like these in its enterprise-wide General Manager Development Program and Human Resources Development Program. (Danaher also has an undergrad program called the Operations Leadership Program). The globally diversified conglomerate is headquartered in Washington, D.C., but its industrial, healthcare and consumer products units are all over the world.

Since it began in 2014, Danaher’s Human Resources Development Program has lost only one associate. The GM program—which is much larger, with 182 associates—saw 14 voluntary losses in 2018. Historically, the GM program onboarded 5-15 associates per year and had a retention rate near 60 percent. Over the past two years the program has grown significantly, onboarding more than 50 people per year, with an annual retention rate over 90 percent in 2018.

Leadership Development Program Manager Angela Benjamin says keeping the leadership pipeline intact is her top priority. As the the first person to assume an enterprise-wide program manager role for GMDP (she started at end of 2015), Angela credits an emphasis on structure, oversight and partnerships for decreasing turnover within her programs.

Danaher associates commit to six years of hands-on leadership experience, and each associate’s development track is highly customized. The program structure offers accelerated growth through “stretch roles,” where employees learn various aspects of the business. It also offers greater consistency of experiences facilitated by program governance, clear roles and responsibilities, and close collaboration between Angela and business leaders on individual development plans.

Angela says her retention strategy starts with setting clear expectations early on to make sure associates know what to expect at every milestone. Her team conducts an initial orientation to outline the program and give associates an overview of the types of experiences, mindsets and values it takes to successfully navigate the LDPs. There’s also an annual evaluation where associates and their leaders reassess their progress and determine what their next role should be to maximize their development.

Community and communication are also huge components of Danaher’s retention strategy. For example, an annual conference gives Danaher’s globally dispersed associates three days of learning and networking. The conference also gives them an opportunity to discuss their wins and challenges, and exchange best practices.

“The Danaher GMDP and HRDP associates are spread across 23 countries and 77 sites, so they look forward to getting together with their peers,” Angela says. Most LDPs at other companies are managed across 1-5 sites, allowing more frequent cohort touchpoints among program participants. Danaher’s international footprint means Angela has to be creative in finding ways to foster peer-to-peer networking. There’s a dedicated LinkedIn group, for example, where associates  share career updates and interesting articles and find ways to progress towards their goals together.

“If anyone is struggling with anything, I connect them with a current associate who may have overcome a similar challenge or a program alumni or executive champion who is an SME on the issue at hand,” Angela says.

Because her program participants are all over the world, this personal touch can be a challenge. As a mom to three small children, she can’t always travel to meet face-to-face with associates working in Shanghai, Mumbai or Melbourne, for example. That’s why her team relies on virtual communications and regional liaisons to keep associates engaged and progressing along their leadership track.

Angela’s team, along with Danaher’s HR and other managers, use Workday enterprise resource planning (ERP) to track job satisfaction, career aspirations, and retention risks, a combination of self-reported information and perceptions from the employee’s managers.

What about retaining participants after they complete the program?

Companies often find that the critical time frame for retention is about three years after completing the leadership development program. At this stage, it is especially important for companies to engage program alumni and make them feel valued.

Danaher hasn’t had any associates decline an offboarding role. Today, eight Danaher operating company presidents are program alumni; 14 other alumni and 11 program associates who are close to being offboarded have achieved “senior leader” status—the targeted offboarding role for Danaher’s LDPs.

Because Danaher’s leadership development is considered among the best, there will always be some program graduates who end up with other companies. For example, Yeti CEO Matt Reintjes is a Danaher General Management program alumnus who also served in several leadership roles (including president) at Danaher companies.  

Paradoxically, Danaher’s reputation as an organization that excels at grooming future leaders can actually work against retention efforts. Management consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates calls Danaher a “CEO Academy.” As such, the “best and brightest” Danaher executives and program participants will always be targets for attractive recruiting offers from other corporations.

Whatever your organization’s approach to talent development, it will inevitably lose participants along the way. But involving the right leaders in coaching and development and making sure they know their talent, their motivations, their priorities and their problems, will decrease the rate of attrition.

So what advice does Angela offer other program managers?

“In terms of retaining people, everyone wants to feel valued and supported,” she says.

“Hiring (externally) sometimes seems like the easier answer because you mainly see the best of what a candidate has to offer … “But being willing to take a risk on internal talent is very rewarding and for some, it’s a risk something that takes getting used to. … Even after that six year period, they’re still growing and learning, and we’ve accelerated their path, so there may be gaps in their learning.

“So we, as program managers, have to be flexible, too.”

One more thing about LDPs and retention rates: Not surprisingly, whether or not an organization has an LDP seems to impact company-wide retention rates.

According to Amy A. Titus’s book “Maximizing Rotational Assignments: A Handbook for Human Resources Executives,” Employers that offer rotational programs for leadership development have 70.9 percent retention at the five-year mark, versus 59.8 percent retention for employers with no such programs.

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