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CEOs: Want To Retain Staff? First, Take A Long Look In The Mirror

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For this CEO, the fear and anxiety that accompanied business ownership kept him from realizing the company's potential as an employer.

Companies in every industry are dealing with the Great Resignation, a post-pandemic trend where millions of people are changing employers and even careers. This development requires that company leaders focus on becoming an “employer of choice,” which means creating an authentic, kind and rewarding work environment that becomes part of a brand that attracts talent.

I’ve founded and built four successful tech companies over the last two decades, and I will be the first to admit that I don’t have it all figured out for what it means to be an employer of choice. Many of my talented colleagues and business partners are still building businesses with me today and some have even worked successfully and advanced in their careers across all four companies.

There’s no such thing as the perfect leader or person, myself included, but I wanted to share part of my leadership philosophy that I believe drives loyalty. It started years ago when I discovered I wasn’t showing up the way I wanted to—both on the job and at home as a husband and dad. I was often so overcome by fear and anxiety that I was not present and available to connect during work meetings or family dinners and the kids’ ball games. I was eating and drinking badly, not sleeping, and just not taking care of myself. Worst thing is, I would sometimes be so exhausted that I would fall asleep during date night (luckily my wife stuck with me). I was letting myself be controlled by my ambition, fear and ego.

Slowing down to be present unlocks your zone of genius 

When you are running a company, slowing down to breathe and take care of yourself seems counterintuitive. You’re “all in” on building your new venture, which often feels like mission impossible once you get past the founding euphoria and enter your first valley of despair as you face the inevitable rejections and failures when embarking on a bold new venture.

Focusing 100% on building and growing the company with a “hustle mindset” seems like a better use of your time as the business seems to need 100% of your time and energy.  You feel a tremendous burden of responsibility as a company founder’s success or failure will impact your employees, investors, partners, customers, family and others. What was hardest for me was that my father, Goerdtn Abel, was both my first investor and customer, and for many years I feared failing him as a son by losing his money and failing to live up to his faith in me.

The entrepreneurial ride has been, at times, challenging to enjoy for myself and, I’m sure, many company founders, as living in a constant state of anxiety is an occupational hazard. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 72% of entrepreneurs are directly or indirectly affected by mental health issues compared to just 48% of non-entrepreneurs.

Over the years, I realized how important it was to relish the day-by-day journey that I was on, but didn’t exactly know how to get there. Everything changed when I discovered Jim Dethmer’s style of conscious leadership, which has helped me deal with the anxieties of leading a company.

Conscious leadership is about listening

Dethmer’s conscious leadership focuses on self-aware stewardship, in which leaders create a culture of “we” instead of “me” by quickly recognizing whether they are being “above the line” or “below the line.” Being below the line is about self-righteousness and closing yourself off from listening to others. Instead, leaders can stay above the line, where an openness to being influenced by other opinions is central to daily activity. It’s all about being in the moment, breathing as a meditative practice and recognizing the humanity in all of us—staffers, fellow executives, business partners, family members and yourself. It’s too easy for company founders to go below the line, especially if the focus is on the bottom line rather than the people around you. I’ve been there, done that—but that was early in my career. And thanks to practicing conscious leadership, I evolved to find my place above the line and develop relationships with colleagues who have wanted to continue working with me.

Be team-first

At the same time, a conscious leader isn’t the only element that builds an employer of choice. It’s also imperative to embrace empathy, inspire performance and cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit. This team-first mindset will enable companies to attract and retain the best talent.

To inspire performance, it’s important to consistently recognize staffers’ efforts, champion their achievements and understand why sometimes hard work that’s well done doesn’t pay off the way the team thought it would. With that kind of leadership, employees will want to stick around, even when things are not perfect, and oftentimes, join you at your next endeavor.

Employers of choice also take care of their team and help them grow by offering future-building features. These often include tuition reimbursement, paid professional development, and cross-functional learning that allows people to collaborate more effectively.

Embrace the joy in the journey

Again, these ideas weren’t always clear to me when I founded my first company more than 20 years ago. And I am still a work-in-progress, but I am so glad I took a long look in the mirror and evolved as a leader to embrace a conscious, empathetic mindset. That mindset is now helping me to build an employer-of-choice company that will thrive during the Great Resignation.

For founders and CEOs, everything starts with managing anxiety and cherishing the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, once said: “Joy makes the longest journey too short.”

Every employee wants to be on that kind of journey. Conscious leadership and a team-first mindset have helped me be a leader who can provide it. Other founders and CEOs can certainly do the same.


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