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Attention, leaders: Wake up and listen to your employees

Culture is the most important tool leaders have in retaining employees right now, but leaders and executives aren't listening.

6 min read


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Dear Senior Leader, we need to talk.

Let me say first that I know what you’re going through, and I feel for you. The challenges these past two years have been great, and the messages ringing ceaselessly in your ear are deafening, even discouraging. Though there are many refrains, there’s that one that says, in a crisis, that you are the one who is supposed to have all the answers. I know how daunting that feels.

As if that weren’t enough trouble, there’s the recent communique about a mass exodus going on in workforces everywhere. The one that may at first have sounded like complaining workers who just want their way but gets harder to just write off, as millions have left their jobs every month for many months now. These constant choruses are worrisome, but more troubling are your responses.

Debunking the myths

Let’s start with that myth about you, the senior leader, having to have all the answers. Late last summer, McKinsey & Co. surveyed over 500 of you about the immediate future and the return to work. Your answers proved you believe the prescience myth, then offered a greater shock.

More than 75% of you not only spoke with certainty about the immediate future but also talked in terms of “a finish line,” as McKinsey termed the pattern. You claimed normalcy would not only return in a matter of just weeks or months, but there would also be  a new, seemingly magical status quo returning and remaining for years to come.

In light of the facts apparent to everyone else, it was a stunning claim. Something you might have missed however, was the fact that nearly three-quarters of employees surveyed by McKinsey didn’t believe you, didn’t see the future the same way and lacked faith in your ability to lead as a result.

So, they started leaving, then kept leaving. Rather than listen to why, you and your peers instead made troubling decision No. 2, to respond with an expired view of what it means to lead and what those you lead want. Some of you tried to buy them off, even as they told you more money, while nice, wasn’t what they were after. Some scoffed, leaning on that tattered old axiom, “Good luck finding a job,” a move that quickly rang hollow when, by December 2021, there were a reported 1.5 jobs for every person seeking one, and unemployment plummeted to 3.9%.

All of this is alarming. No doubt, it speaks to a disconnect between you and your employees, but the harder truth is this: Somewhere on the wild roller-coaster that has been the pandemic’s impact on business, you’ve missed that your employees are actually telling you what they want, what they need and more — and what they understand better than you that your organization needs.

These needs aren’t just to weather the storm, but they are indeed what you need to thrive in a world that promises to remain uncertain for a very long time. You need culture, not just as an idea or a declaration, but culture given its long overdue recognition as your most important asset and your chief competitive advantage.

Front-line workers want culture

Just this month, Microsoft released the latest in a growing library of research that they, LinkedIn and others have been doing to studying the rapidly morphing state of work — data you likely missed but ought to pause and consider.

In this latest report, Microsoft surveyed not the typical leaders, managers or some mix of workers, but instead chose to focus on front-line workers exclusively — more than 9,600 of them. You might not stop to think about it, but front-line workers, yours included, represent 80% of the world’s workers.

And as the report put it, “no one has borne the burden of the past two years more than the 2 billion front-line workers around the globe.” Guess what your employees said they want and need most? Culture — a culture that cares for them, for what they are going through, for their futures. Guess what else they said? They’re not getting it from you or the organizations you lead.

Nearly two-thirds say you, their leader, despite your declarations to the contrary, don’t prioritize culture, let alone pursue its clarity and cultivation. 76% said, in the absence of your leadership on this front, they’d turned toward each other trying to bridge the gap. But it’s not working (Did I mention the Great Reshuffle?). It’s simply not the same as leader-led, leader-backed, leader-enabled culture.

So, in November, 4.5 million more left their jobs — not to sit on a beach, but to find a place and a leader who gets this: Without culture as the central strategic priority and imperative, those workers are done working for you. Soon, too, your company may be done, and with it, your role.

I’ll say this as gently as I can, leaders: Wake up. Embrace what every organization thriving in uncertain times knows and honors. Instead of placating your employees, enlist them. Culture is a collective and daily pursuit. It’s a litmus test for whether what you actually do stands up to what you say. If you ignore it, culture is also a reckoning. Your move.

Larry Robertson is an innovation advisor who works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. Robertson was named a Fulbright Scholar in 2021. He’s also the author of two award-winning books: “The Language of Man. Learning to Speak Creativity” and “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress.” As founder of Lighthouse Consulting, he has for over 25 years guided entrepreneurial ventures and their leaders through growth to lasting success. His third book, “Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times,” was released June 1, 2021.

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