The new talent game: Long term gains from short term employees

July 31, 2018

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

One Korn Ferry expert refers to them as 'near-term catalysts.' They are going to be disruptive but can propel business.

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.)

Talented short-timers can even help find their replacements, since they likely know others like them. They’re not going to find you a turkey.

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.