As the job market tightens, companies fret about talent leaving too soon. But Korn Ferry asks: Could that actually be a good thing?

The problem:
Companies are worried digital and creative prone workers who quit early may sap the firms’ innovative future.
Why it matters:
Many firms are putting a lot of effort into keeping employees who leave anyway.
The solution:
Why try to stop short-timers? Many bright workers today prefer to job-hop and will give their best early on; train and reward them faster—and gear up for replacements.

Tom McKeown has hired a lot of people. Few have been like Kyle.

From almost the moment Kyle signed on as director of marketing at HRsmart, a Dallas-based talent management software company that was acquired by another firm in 2015, it was clear he was exceptional. At 31, he was not only bright, but the ideal combination of “doer” and “thinker.” He had a mind for marketing, but was also a technology whiz, implementing systems that improved efficiency across the entire 300-person organization. Perhaps most notably, he possessed an intellectual curiosity that led him to fix problems before anyone even realized there was a problem to fix.

But Kyle wasn’t exactly in it for the long haul. Eighteen months after he started, he left to run marketing at a media company. Two years later, he moved on again. The last anyone had heard he was working at a startup. “My grandmother used to call it ‘itchy feet,’” says McKeown, who was general manager of HRsmart at the time and is now founder and CEO of the people analytics firm TrenData. “Some people just gotta be on the move.”

For years, the Kyles of the world have always been seen as costly and unnerving to corporate America, where great companies were often equated with the tenure of their talent. In today’s age, where many short-timers are digitally oriented, and firms rely so heavily on digital transformation, the early exiting becomes even more disconcerting to many. All of which is likely to happen more now, as the job market keeps improving, forcing companies to dedicate more resources and considerable funds toward keeping their talent.

But Korn Ferry solutions experts say there may very well be a provocative alternative: Let them go. In today’s gig economy, a number of highly talented and creative workers in tech and other areas aren’t interested in staying past a couple of years or so. So instead of watching firms lament about turnover, Korn Ferry is advising some clients to assume people are going to leave after a few years—and to create special onboarding, training, and compensation plans that matches these short-timers. Handled correctly, in the view of Korn Ferry, the shift may not only soften the blow of early departures but also attract a whole new set of talented workers. “For the right kind of person, this is incredibly appealing: Come in, build something great, and then no harm, no foul,” says Melissa Swift, Korn Ferry’s leader for digital advisory across North America and global accounts.

To be sure, no one is suggesting that loyalty is still not valued or that early exiting strategies fit every firm. But Korn Ferry believes firms must consider a whole new talent framework these days. Companies worldwide, after all, are forced to compete in a world where artificial intelligence, automation, blockchain systems, and other technologies are threatening business as usual. Amid all these changes has come a crisis of confidence in staffing: According to research compiled by Korn Ferry, more than eight in 10 executives believe their organizations lack the skills to deliver on their digital ambitions. Another 63% believe their transformation efforts are stalled because of difficulties in “changing their company culture to be agile,” and 39% cite “resistance to new ways of working” as a primary roadblock.

All of which leaves companies in a desperate hunt for a new type of worker—one who possesses the skills and competencies to solve existential challenges about what the company is and where it’s going. “The change we’re going to see in the next 20 years is transformational,” says Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who is working with several major retailers on reassessing short-time talent. “We haven’t seen this kind of change since 1918.”

It’s well known that work cycles today are quite different from a generation ago. One survey says more than 40% of baby boomers have stayed at the same company for more than 20 years, while millennials can typically expect to work at a dozen firms in their lifetime. Capitalizing on this change has been a number of fast-growing corporate tech titans with a new approach to staffing. Google and Facebook, for example, are known for attracting innovative people with special benefits and more open structures—but also having some of the highest turnover. At Google, the average employee tenure is just over three years; at Facebook, Tesla, and Dropbox it’s less than three; at Uber it’s less than two.

Other industries, like healthcare and retail, are eager to model similar levels of growth and innovation in the growing tech side of their business—but will need to reshape their approach to job tenure. “Clients say, ‘I want to hire like Google,’” says Swift. “Well, that’s what it means to hire like Google: You’ll get great people, and they’ll stay with you for two years.”

However long they stay, the worker of today is clearly more in the driver’s seat, with low unemployment and a strong economy creating far more opportunities, especially in tech-related roles. According to government stats, there are essentially more jobs open than those looking for them; during the Great Recession’s peak, nearly seven unemployed people were fighting for every job opening.

In that environment, today’s workers can impose new demands that go beyond higher pay (which studies show matters less to many of them than, say, a company’s culture or purpose). That includes for many a whole new level of freedom that goes against the grain of many old-guard organizations—including the ability to take entrepreneurial approaches and reduce organizational constraints.

Case in point: Bonin Bough. A celebrity among marketing execs, Bough is known for bringing age-old consumer packaged goods companies such as Pepsi and Mondelez up to speed with new media. His approach has always hinged on the freedom to play by his own rules. In an interview last year, for example, he described once joining a family-owned company by telling the founder he had only one condition: “You let me run it as if it were my own company.” (Which the founder did.)

Korn Ferry believes firms that are the most agile in adjusting to this new order will grab a lot of great talent. Some of this begins with setting clear career paths. At ITA Group, an event, incentive and employee engagement solutions provider in Des Moines, Iowa, potential growth opportunities are part of job descriptions, and employees and managers can review them as those jobs progress. The underlying philosophy is that a career ladder is actually a career lattice. “You’re not being forced to follow any certain path. But when you start to get that itch, they’re great about working with you to say, ‘Maybe this is a time to start job shadowing, to try something new,’” says Christina Zurek, ITA Group’s insights and strategy leader.

Certainly, it’s understandable why companies would try to hold on to early talent and limit departures. On average, it costs 2.33 times a yearly salary to replace most workers, studies show. But the lasting impact of a superstar short-timer can be worth far more than loyalty. As Silicon Valley management professor John Sullivan, PhD, puts it, “Do you want LeBron James for one year, or Homer Simpson for five?”

According to Korn Ferry’s Swift, successfully handling these short-term workers, whom she calls “near-term catalysts,” means giving them a greater chance to rock the boat early. “You can authorize them to break glass a little bit, understanding that you’re not grooming this person to be the next CEO. You’re not worried if maybe they annoy some people a little bit, or if the change is genuinely disruptive. You’re not worried about whether you’ll have a role for them in 10 years,” she says. “All of those concerns sort of go away, and you can really focus on maximizing that person’s impact in a transformational role.” For Korn Ferry’s Rowley, early and frequent coaching is also key. “Recognize what success looks like for them,” says Rowley. “They’re going to be disruptive.”

But disruptive can be helpful. Indeed, it turns out at least some short-timers may even be a plus on the way out the door—by helping find solid replacements. As a rule, a talented star is likely to know others. “They’re not going to find you a turkey,” says Sullivan.