This article first appeared in Forbes in March 2022.
From an employer’s perspective, today’s job market is arguably more competitive than ever before. A record 4.5 million people resigned in November, a shocking milestone that continued an upward trend of American workers leaving employers for new jobs. This sea change has challenged companies to address demand, maintain institutional knowledge, sustain quality service and more—all at a time when supply chain disruptions and rising inflation are keeping even the most optimistic business leaders up at night.
Yet adversity always offers opportunity. The present challenges facing employers open the window to acquiring top talent and gaining a competitive edge. Many organizations appear to realize this, and they're improving their value propositions in the form of higher salaries, better benefits, work-life balance, work-from-home policies and other incentives. All are necessary, yet I believe that organizations can improve their chances of securing talent by adopting a simple, underutilized tool I have used throughout my career: Give employees ownership in the organization.
To be clear, I don't mean equity, a financial instrument to incentivize performance that remains important yet also finite. I'm referring to ownership as an intrinsic lever that motivates, fulfills and inspires employees to perform at an exceptional level. By creating conditions of ownership, employees no longer work to simply earn a paycheck. They work to achieve a higher purpose that matches the problem the company exists to solve.
To create a sense of ownership, leaders can focus on the following activities.
Establish A Winning Onboarding Program
The phrase “hire slow, fire fast” speaks to the importance of an employee’s early tenure at an organization. This period is not only formative but also lays the foundation for success. Naturally, organizations benefit from employing a strong onboarding program, which, in my experience, provides job-based education while establishing sense of purpose that aligns organizational results with personal motivations. This belief echoes research conducted by McKinsey & Company, which found that 70% of employees believe work defines their sense of purpose.
Assign Stretch Accountabilities
The value of stretch assignments can’t be overstated. A Harvard Business Review study (download required) found that 71% of senior leaders identified stretch assignments as the most impactful career enabler. Research by Korn Ferry led to similar findings. Stretch assignments are projects or tasks that push the boundaries of performance, forcing employees to test the limits of their knowledge, skills and abilities. While stretch assignments must involve substantial effort, they must also have significant stakes such that failure should result in considerable and meaningful consequences for the organization.
In my experience, stretch assignments accomplish two important feats: First, they convey to new hires the degree to which the organization trusts in and values their ability to perform, which creates the conditions for a fruitful, symbiotic partnership. Second, stretch assignments unleash creativity and out-of-the-box thinking and solutions, all of which provide ample benefits to the company. For both of these reasons, I recommend leveraging stretch assignments early into an employee’s tenure. In my experience, this leads to higher engagement and better performance.
Create An Organization Comprised Of CEOs
Leaders should treat every employee as an expert within the scope of his or her role while paying attention to their informal experiences or interests. If I hire a new individual in marketing who specializes in SEO, then that individual should be the go-to person for questions about how we can improve our website’s organic traffic, keyword optimization, etc. By making this person the gatekeeper of all activity and decision making in this arena, we motivate them not only to embrace the role but also to invest their time and energy into expanding their relevant skills and knowledge. This becomes a self-reinforcing system: The more you invest in the employee’s expertise, the more he or she invests in it.
It goes without saying that every employee wants to be acknowledged for their sacrifice, hard work and results. So it makes sense that employee recognition would be an effective tool for recruiting and retaining talent. Every leader should develop a reliable and consistent framework for recognizing employee achievement. This framework should provide recognition in multiple forms across different channels. Think one-on-one meetings between an employee and supervisor, departmental sessions and companywide activities, not to mention verbal acknowledgment as well as recognition via social media and digital mediums. At ERG Enterprises, we routinely take an omnichannel approach to employee recognition that includes the previous activities. What’s more, this framework should create a regular cadence for employee acknowledgment while also leaving room for special achievements, such as a high-performing project, award, product or service innovation, etc.
Make Talent Investment A Value, Not An Activity
Nurturing talent is not a one-time activity, but a continuous one. Organizations that make this responsibility a value rather than an obligation are far more likely to make human resources a competitive advantage. Values inform our perceptions and behavior consistently, reliably and effectively. To retain key contributors, leaders must continue the previous activities for the duration of employees’ tenure at the company.
Over the course of my career as an entrepreneur, I have learned the importance of empowering employees with a sense of ownership in the organization. I have seen the benefits of enabling talent—from the entry-level new hire to the executive-level contributor—to become the CEO of their role. It impacts culture, employee morale, customer service and operational efficacy. Empirical evidence tells me that this approach to talent investment is one of the most important and effective ways of finding and keeping top-performing employees, enabling us to gain a competitive edge that is increasingly more important than ever.
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