When Mary sat down at the table for coaching, I could tell that something had changed. With her sandy hair, impish face, and eyes that danced with enthusiasm for work, Mary usually came into our sessions looking like a sprite.
Today, she looked despondent.
“I’ve decided to leave the agency.”
Oh dear, I thought. I’d worried about this possibility ever since Mary told me that her boss wouldn’t fill out the feedback form I ask of my clients’ supervisors.
Mary’s boss had authorized her to attend my leadership program, so I knew he thought she was competent. The least he could do, I thought, was invest fifteen minutes in giving her some detailed feedback.
I gave her the form because Mary rarely got any feedback, apart from the occasional – “you’re doing great” from her supervisor during their annual performance evaluation. She was known as a hard worker who finished her projects on time and on budget. Jeff, her 50-year-old supervisor, spent most of his time focused on his problem employees, like Sharon,.
He figured Mary didn’t need the attention. Many saw her as an up-and-coming star. She’d come to the agency right after grad school with a degree in civil engineering and a positive, can-do spirit that most people found infectious.
But when we talked, I discovered Mary wanted more challenge. She was tired of being assigned the same kinds of designs to do, again and again. Because she felt responsible for her projects, she’d often work double time to get the job done, if another colleague didn’t pull her weight on a project.
“I know when I’m on a team with Sharon, I’ll end up doing her work. I’ve tried repeatedly talking with her about it – without any change. When I’ve gone to Jeff, he’s no help at all. He just looks down at his spreadsheets and tells me, “there’s not much I can do; you know we’re understaffed.”
I’d coached Mary to try new ways to connect with Jeff. Yet he never seemed to have the time to talk. With 15 engineers and administrative staff reporting directly to him, he was always too busy managing workloads, attending meetings or dealing with senior management.
And when Mary went to ask him again for the feedback sheet, she discovered that he was away on his annual three week hunting trip to Montana.
“At least, maybe he’ll come back in a good mood,” she told me. “The only time I see him light up is when he’s telling us about his trip, the elk he shot or the rack he brought home. He ALWAYS has time to talk about that. “
Jeff had been promoted to management after ten years as a cost-estimator. Accepting a position in management was the only path to advancement available in the organization. But he rapidly discovered that management was not his forte. It meant letting go of the design and cost-estimating work that he had liked, for the personnel issues, which he detested.
Whenever possible, he tried to avoid people issues. His focused his work on assigning “resources” to projects and managing work flows.
After 16 years in management, Jeff’s heart was no longer in the job.
I had coached Mary on ways to encourage a conversation with Jeff, by offering to take on more challenging assignments, sharing about her aspirations, and brainstorming ways to motivate Sharon. I’d suggested ideas that she could do on her own to network with professional colleagues, volunteer for special projects, and pursue other learning experiences at work to broaden her skills.
She’d tried them all. But the situation with Jeff was wearing her out. And he, counting down the 1257 days to his retirement, didn’t seem about to change.
It was then she heard about the opening at the other agency.
“It’s not about the money, even though they have offered me more. I like the people here and our mission. I thought I’d be here for years. It’s just that….”
Her supervisor didn’t care.
Or, at least, he didn’t know how to show it.
Coaching managers over the years, I’ve been tempted to scream at their supervisors: “Attend to your people! They’re your biggest asset – replacing them will be costly. Just show that you care. People want a supervisor who is interested in them – who has their back – who talks to them about their careers – who helps them develop by tackling more challenging assignments.”
The research is pretty consistent: money can’t make up for lack of supervisory interest.
Here are the top ten reasons people stay in their jobs according to Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans in their book Love ‘em or Lose ‘em.
- Exciting work and challenge
- Career growth, learning and development
- Working with great people
- Fair pay
- Supportive management/good boss
- Being recognized, valued and respected
- Meaningful work and making a difference
- Pride in the organization, its mission and its products
- Great work environment and culture
Notice above that people want fair pay – not necessarily big pay.
On my list, I’d put supportive management/good boss at the top, because a good manager can help a talented employee achieve items # 1-4 and 6-10.
Pro-actively caring about the people working for you isn’t just for supervisors. It’s key to managing teams, Boards, and volunteer groups.
People want to know that the person they work for notices and acknowledges their effort, considers their needs and interests, and thinks developmentally about what is good for them while also tending to what is good for the organization.
That they care.
In our obsessively busy and often short-sighted culture, taking the time to demonstrate interest and caring can seem like another yes-I-want-to-but-how-will-I-ever-have-time-to-do- it-when-I-have-to-do-x….kind of thing.
At her going away luncheon, Jeff was heard to whisper to a colleague “Yeah, she’s leaving because they’re paying her more than we can…”