Keeping your star performers

“When people are able to mold their jobs to fit them a little bit better, they stay.”

Why does a star performer up and leave a company? James Waldroop said it isn’t usually for money or any of the other reasons typically given, but rather because the job doesn’t tie into what makes the star happy.

The manager must help people discover what is satisfying and sculpt a position

that allows its expression, said Waldroop, co-author with Tim Butler of a Harvard Business Review article entitled Job Sculpting: The Art of Retaining Your Best People. Waldroop, associate director of career development at Harvard Business School and principal of Peregrine Partners, a career development firm in Brookline, Mass., talked about job sculpting with IDG senior editor Kathleen Melymuka.

IDG: You say it isn’t safe to assume that people who excel at their work are happy in their jobs. Why not?

Waldroop: I’m pretty good at changing tires, and if you paid me enough I could really turn that lug wrench, but would I be happy? No. Many people in the engineering and technology field…never liked [their jobs]. And that’s where deeply embedded life interests come into the picture.

IDG: Can you explain what that means?

Waldroop: By deeply embedded life interests, I’m not talking about passing fancies like collecting gold coins. I’m talking about interests in the core activities of doing business. By the time people reach early adulthood, their interest patterns are set for life. We’ve identified eight broad, core functions that apply to a variety of work. People generally have two or three. In that combination of interests, you can find the right path.

IDG: Can you give me some examples of how you can help an employee align life interests with career?

Waldroop: Take somebody interested in the application of technology and creative production and we might be talking about Web design or working for George Lucas [on computer effects for movies] – technical but creative. But if you fold in managing people, then we’re talking about a different animal: somebody who might like managing that group. Then somebody who likes to influence through language and ideas wants to be loser to the customer: a product manager who really thinks about how to get people to buy this thing. The person who likes enterprise control wants to be running the show – maybe starting the business or taking it over – managing from a strategic point of view.

IDG: What happens when someone’s job doesn’t nurture his/her life interests?

Waldroop: There are some life interests that you can express outside work. Someone with a desire to mentor might become a Big Brother, for example. But many people will be miserable and will eventually quit without realizing why they’re quitting.

IDG: So people may not know what their life interests are?

Waldroop: Not necessarily, and they make career missteps as a result. They go from Company A to Company B, and they still aren’t expressing their life interest because they’re doing the same old thing.

IDG: How can a manager help?

Waldroop: When an individual said he’s tired and burned out, a manager can help him figure this out and fine-tune the work rather than lose the person.

IDG: Do you have an example?

Waldroop: You’ve got an engineer who is interested in counselling and mentoring, but she’s spending [all of her time] in front of a terminal. Maybe this person can set up a mentoring program for new hires. If she’s also interested in influencing through language and ideas, she might be sent out on the road periodically to do recruiting.

Let’s say there’s an interest in influencing through language and ideas, but not in mentoring. That person might stay in the engineering role, but also work as liaison between her group and the sales and support folks. If she’s really into creative production, she could work with the people who write the manuals.

IDG: So you can make fairly minor changes or start with small changes that will evolve over time?

Waldroop: Absolutely. But they can also be major changes. If somebody really ought to be moved into something different, move that person.

IDG: How do you know this approach works?

Waldroop: We have no hard data; the tools and concepts haven’t been around long enough for that. But our experience is absolutely consistent that when people are able to mold their jobs to fit them a little bit better, they stay.