Sunday, June 1, 2014

Wait! Stop! Don't Go! (Unabridged)

Identifying the right strategies to hold on to the right employees for the right reasons 
W W W . N R P A . O R G    |    J U N E   2 0 1 4    |    Parks & Recreation
For nearly a decade in the early part of my career I worked for a prominent executive recruiting/ consulting firm. During my first week on the job, I remember the Director explaining the firm’s clientele standards by saying, “if they’ve had more than three jobs in twenty years, just file their resume in the trash.” He was of the Baby Boomer generation so he viewed longevity as a badge of honor if not its own measure of career success.

Retention Evolution
Fast forward a few decades - Forbes publishes an article in 2012 declaring that Job Hopping is the New Normal and the entire definition and expectations of employee retention has been upended. By a Millennial’s assessment, a resume with only three jobs in twenty years probably wouldn’t signify dedication, depth and perseverance but rather a deficit of skill, will or creativity.

In 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average job-stay had devolved to 4.4 years. Just two years later, current reports suggest that the tenure of the teens and young adults entering the workforce today will actually be about half that. That could amount to more than twenty employers in a single career! Organizations still trying to measure their workforce successes by Boomer retention standards will need to brace themselves for frequent frustration if not disappointment and defeat.

Engagement - the new Black
Savvy employers have already caught on that a direct focus on retention (for retention’s sake) is last season’s fashion. Whether driven by generational preferences, economic shifts or just the nature of a given industry, a focus on engagement will have much greater return for both the organization and the employee. Increased retention will be a natural byproduct and benefit of creating an effective engagement environment. And while “employee engagement” has the media earmarks of being “trendy,” the tangible effectiveness suggests the concept has more staying power than yesterday’s failed fads of Matrix Management or parachute pants.

What’s the difference?
Retention strategies are characterized as more reactive, short-term, immediate and structure-oriented (pay incentives, reward programs, title changes) whereas engagement strategies are more proactive, long-term, developmental and relationship-oriented (professional development, process empowerment, flexibility). For me, the distinction is found in the answers to… what am I trying to accomplish? - and - why am I trying to accomplish it?

What’s the Point?
That’s what you should be asking yourself… what’s the point? Are you tracking retention and implementing programs to reduce turnover because you are focused on a number – an arbitrary percentage you are charged to stay below because that number, in and of itself, is perceived to equate to top performance organization-wide? Or are you evaluating retention and developing improvement strategies because turnover is creating a measurable performance deficit in key areas? If it’s the former, I say, Hogwash! Some turnover is inevitable and some turnover is beneficial. It’s important to get very clear about the results you are trying to achieve, why you are trying to achieve it, what areas are impacted the most, in what situations can you actually effect change and, with limited time and resources, where are your efforts going to have the greatest impact?

Churchill’s Challenge
“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” A great reminder from dear Winston that you can’t be afraid to walk away from that meticulously developed masterpiece if it’s not yielding the needed results.

Now before you pull your hair out over the idea of having to re-writing all those retention practices you labored developing to implement a new “engagement” strategy, Stop! Your most successful retention strategies are probably really engagement strategies – just a rose by another name. The greater caution is that you don’t allow the enthusiasm for a new solution to take a credible strategy and implement it like it’s a fad or it may be received like a fad and only have the effectiveness of a fad, no matter how sound.

One Size Does Not Fit All
There’s no one-right-solution that will work for all employees in all cases. The best answer for you may be a targeted but blended approach – engagement strategies for this group, traditional retention strategies for that group. The key is…what’s working and what’s not? As parks and recreation agencies across the U.S. now enter a peak season in needing temporary and seasonal staff support, it will take more than one approach to create a successful employment environment for those traditionally high-turnover positions.

In a recent discussion on the NRPA Connect “Open Forum,” Meagan Leatherbury, Natural Resource Program Manager for Howard Co Recreation & Parks Department, challenged her fellow park and recreation peers for creative solutions for her colleague in the Aquatics Department to “retain his best workers and prevent him from being in never-ending interviews.” The responses were rich with Great Ideas that were both retention and engagement oriented.

On the retention side, Darren Hoff, Recreation Program Coordinator for Brookings Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department said that for seasonal/part-time staff they offer a $0.25 raise for every 500 hours worked. “We also pay an additional $0.25 for every hour worked during the summer for lifeguards as a bonus for the end of the summer if they make 5 or fewer schedule changes and work until the end of the summer.”

City of McMinnville’s Parks & Recreation Department Aquatic Center Manager Robert Porter offered the sound advice that “the most important way to retain staff is to be a positive and involved supervisor … give them appropriate and timely praise for good work [and] when they make mistakes… they need to know that their supervisors will give them "constructive" criticism and see them as real people with feelings.”

Ryan Brookes, Youth/Family Director for McLean Community Center offers a success formula for employee engagement which has resulted in the retention of all 13 part-time employees at his Teen Center for a minimum of 3 years, some as long as 5 years.

Here is a snapshot of Ryan’s keys to success:
1. Praise and recognition. As often as possible, and publicly when appropriate.

2. Empowerment. Make it more than just a buzz word. Ask them often for their ideas …. When people (of all ages) see their ideas taken seriously, and actually implemented, they feel a deep sense of satisfaction, and it encourages more.

3. Offer growth. Talk to the staff about their interests. Recognize their strengths in the workplace. Give them tasks [that] build them up. Make leaders out of them.

4. Accountability. This is a big one. The quickest way to lose great staff is to allow others to loaf … It's not fair, and it will kill moral, and great staff will leave, leaving you with a stable full of slackers… If you do the items 1-3 well, you won't have too much trouble with number
There are many more Great Ideas posted by these and other NRPA members on NRPA Connect and I’m sure you have some of your own that are worth sharing. To see more on this topic or add your own Great Ideas, visit

Special thanks to Meagan Leatherbury, Darren Hoff, Robert Porter and Ryan Brookes for your contributions on NRPA Connect and for your permission to republish them.

If you have a management topic that you would like Managing Management to address, don’t be shy. Please email me at with your suggestions, questions or (even better) awkward situations that are just a part of this challenge to lead.