Agenda Item #1: Half the Staff Is Leaving

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison says boards must deal with a new workforce reality: “career nomads” who shift jobs often.

Imagine this scenario: While giving an update on the business at the next quarterly board meeting, the CEO reveals what sounds like a shocking statistic—half of the company’s younger workers will likely be gone in the next one to two years.

Is it cause for panic, or not that much of a surprise? And, more to the point, what should leaders do about it?

These are the days of the “career nomad,” workers who travel from one opportunity to the next. For them it’s all about learn and earn, make an impact, and move on. This point was brought home humorously in an extreme example told to me over dinner by the CEO of a very large company, which hires hundreds of college interns each year. Only three weeks into the internship, when the CEO was addressing the new class of interns, one of them stood up and said: “I just don’t know if this is working out for me. I don’t feel I am making an impact on anyone’s life.”

Humor aside, the career nomad phenomenon shouldn’t be associated only with millennials. It’s happening at all levels, even in the most senior positions. The numbers tell the story. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), average job tenure has declined about 9% from 4.6 years in 2014 to 4.2 years in 2018. Younger professionals often change jobs after one or two years.

On any P&L, there is an enormous hidden cost: unwanted turnover. The reality is that it takes time for a new employee to “find the bathroom,” let alone navigate the entrenched, informal networks within their new employer. Given the learning curve associated with any job, it can take months before someone makes a real impact.

In these days of low unemployment and higher turnover, there’s no fighting the career nomad trend. But leaders can look for ways to extend that two-year job tenure to four years—then those four years to eight years, especially for high-potentials, the diamonds in the rough. These are the people who will make the most impact on the company (the 20% who accomplish the 80%) and whose learning and development ought to be the biggest priority. This group needs to be identified much earlier than in the past—then nurtured, mentored, and developed.

Career development within the company should no longer be approached like a ladder. It’s like a jungle gym, moving up and branching out. Knowing that, boards must ensure that management can attract and retain career nomads. Here are four important considerations:

  • Screen for learning agility. This ability to apply past experiences and lessons learned to new challenges and opportunities is the No. 1 predictor of success. (I call it “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”) Learning agility should be identified and developed as early as possible, particularly among high-potentials whose desire to learn more, stretch, and grow can be accomplished within one company, with the right career development opportunities.
  • Create a career architecture. Give employees a view of a variety of roles throughout the organization. This can show how they can satisfy their career aspirations at one firm and extend their job tenure. The longer talented people stay, the more likely the organization will be to invest in their development.
  • Focus on the 70/20/10. Development comes from assignments and bosses, not the classroom. That’s the 70/20/10, respectively, of learning on the job, learning from others (especially the boss), and formal training.
  • Make development a leadership priority. Don’t simply “outsource” development and mentoring to human resources. Business leaders should be accountable for career development and mentoring, including to increase employee engagement, reduce turnover, and ensure employees progress in their careers.

As more talent is on the move, companies need to find ways to make the most of employees’ contributions while they’re on the job. Keeping people on the job a little longer, with real opportunities to learn and grow and make an impact, can be the win-win that satisfies career nomads and their employers.