All Articles Leadership Careers What's the surprising secret to retaining great employees?  

What’s the surprising secret to retaining great employees?  

Retaining great employees requires employers to help them set goals that align with their values. Learn why that's so important.

9 min read


Photo of a man sitting by his laptop to illustrate retaining great employees


I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in business and took a job as a management trainee at a fancy department store. It wasn’t long before I was offered a position as a department manager, and I eagerly accepted the promotion, even though I sensed early on that retail was not a career I wanted to pursue long term. 

Why did I accept the position if I knew I didn’t plan to stay? The answer is simple: It gave me the experience of managing people and large inventories, which I knew would look good on my resume when I moved on. 

I suspect that I’m like many people who use their first and second job as a stepping-stone to something bigger and, hopefully, better. The department store put a lot of money into how it trained and groomed me for the professional world, but I left it behind as soon as I found something better. 

My discontent with the world of retail was hard to articulate, but I knew deep down that something integral and essential was missing for me. I discovered the missing piece when I became an FBI agent because it was a job that provided me with the meaning and fulfillment that had been missing. 

There are hundreds of articles on why people leave their jobs, followed by a tidal wave of ways leaders can change their culture and retain their top talent. I’m sure I’ll touch on a few of them here, as well, but anemic tips on how to be a better leader miss the point. It will take more than warm fuzzies at the office to persuade high-performing employees to stay the course. 

Research indicates that the one surprising secret of retaining great employees is helping them set goals that align with their values. All the hard work that leadership puts into creating a perfect work culture is worth nothing if it doesn’t address the real heart of why people pick up and move — their deeper needs are simply not met in their current circumstances. 

Let’s take a closer look: 

1. Set the right goals

Goals can be a great source of satisfaction and provide direction for our life. Studies show that there is a definite link between the pursuit of successful goals and our well-being. Interestingly, the results showed that the connection was stronger when we saw progress toward our goal rather than actually attaining our goal. 

Specific goals 

Setting specific and measurable goals works like a GPS for our life; they point to a destination. When the department store offered me a job out of college, my specific goals were to pay rent, buy a new car and get my footing in the professional world.  

Because I had specific goals, I was able to focus on those outcomes. I was motivated to earn a paycheck, sharpen my communication skills with supervisors and learn to take the initiative when something needed to be done. 

Specific goals are great, but they can also obscure the bigger picture for us because they can produce tunnel vision. Yes, I worked hard at the department store and got promoted several times. However, I risked remaining so focused on my specific goals that I would forget to ask myself whether the road I was on would produce a life that was personally meaningful to me.  

Which leads to … 

Broad goals 

Broad goals cast a wider net and are essential because they help expand our understanding of ourselves. Specific goals may motivate us now, but expansive goals remind us of who we want to be in the future.  

Broad goals are the things that assure us we can always be doing something better. As a result, we become learners and nurture a growth mindset. They help keep us honest and satisfied with our specific goals.  

A specific goal might be to earn lots of money, but the broader goal of becoming better at your work is essential to cultivate confidence and the self-awareness required to make life meaningful. 

What your top talent may not know is that obsessing over specific goals can make them sacrifice a bit of their humanity in the process. If they are determined to make lots of money at any cost, they are already at risk of forgetting what makes goals meaningful in the first place. 

How to make it work for you: Take the time to understand how your top talent sets goals. Don’t always assume you’ll get a clear answer; good employees are known to say what they think you want to hear.  

If their specific goal is to make lots of money and you’re small fry, don’t be offended if they look at your company as a “starter” job. 

Instead, show them how to be better at their job. They may not stay with your company, but you’ve set a good ethical example and one that, hopefully, is worthy of imitating. 

2. Develop the right values

Quits: Total Nonfarm, from January 2021 through March 2022
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The US is producing a lot of jobs, but how many of them are good ones? Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that over 4 million people are quitting their jobs every month.  

Why are so many people miserable in their careers? 

If a well-paying job is all that mattered, many people would be happy and content. But a recent LinkedIn member survey found that one-third of workers would exchange a small pay cut for more enjoyable work. The same study found that 46% would not give up pay for anything. 

Even more interesting is that these differences can be traced to different generations. Generation Z and millennials are inclined to sacrifice money in pursuit of a better work environment. They want a stronger chance to grow in their work role, and a lot of their job-hopping is nothing more than an attempt to find the best launchpad for them. 

Generation X and boomers tend to stick with the job, take the money, and retire, sometimes with a pension. 

Some people value money and status. Others value achievement and self-improvement. Still others value intimate relationships or creating an impact in their community.  

So, while a person can be incredibly successful in their job, they remain miserable and haunted by the disconnect they feel in their life. One of the biggest traps that people fall into is pursuing goals in a career that don’t align with their core values. 

It’s important to discover what gives your life meaning before you set goals. 

For example, if you value intimacy and good relationships but your goal is to climb the ladder of success, you might end up spending time around people who only care about status and power. If you value integrity and honesty but your goal is to make lots of money, you may work for a company that cares only about the bottom line and making money.  

The disconnect between our goals and values can torch our entire life. Goals are meant to give us direction, but if they don’t kickstart us into moving forward, we need to rethink them. 

When I joined the FBI, I learned from my older colleagues that, within the ranks,  FBI stood for bravery, fidelity and integrity. I shared those same values, and I knew this was a career path that spoke to me. 

Research shows that people who are flexible in their goals turn out more productive, content and happier than those who rigidly pursue their goals, even when those goals aren’t working out. 

It’s impossible to talk about goal-setting, self-improvement and well-being without also talking about values. If you want to become a better person in the future, you must also define what a better person is because every decision you make will either leave you regretting your behavior and choices in life or take you further down a road filled with meaning. 

How to make it work for you: Retaining great employees means helping them set goals aligned with their values.  

Good values are:  

  • Controlled by you, not others 
  • Positive and constructive 
  • Define the best in you 

Bad values are: 

  • Controlled by others or outside circumstances 
  • Ultimately destructive 
  • Bring out a lack of confidence 

Conversations like these are often difficult because many of your employees have never given values much thought. Too often, values are conflated with goals, and it can take a strong mind to communicate the difference between the two clearly.  

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Companies that suffer from a lack of clear leadership make their top talent feel under-appreciated because good employees want to do their best work. They see jobs as springboards — a place to learn and grow.  

If you can’t help them do this, you are nothing but dead weight to them. Retaining great employees means creating opportunities for top talent to thrive and build great things.  

If they stay with your company, you’ll grow and prosper. If they move on to another opportunity, congratulate yourself on raising up the next generation of leaders. The reputation gained might attract other top talent to fill their shoes. 

LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Get Quy’s new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles” as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” Follow her on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

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