Don’t Put Retention On The Back Burner

If you don't want to fall behind in the war for talent, you need to keep a focus on development planning—and the CEO has a critical role to play.

With the Russia-Ukraine war creating global geopolitical instability, supply chains in disarray, inflation dampening consumption and the cost of capital rising, it can be easy to put talent in the back seat. But that would be a mistake.

The Great Resignation remains a real threat. CNBC reported new data showing a staggering 11 million job openings—an excess of nearly 5 million over jobless claims. With numbers like that, retaining talent must be top of mind for CEOs. In fact, effective talent management—always a strategic endeavor—has become mission critical for most companies.

I’m frequently asked to advise executives in assessing whether they have the right capabilities, of the right quality and in the right quantity, to meet their strategic objectives. Typically, I recommend they look across the organization to be sure they know what’s needed for success and identify gaps versus the current status. Then, they consider how to close the gaps. This is a key piece of strategy, and (of course) capabilities include more than people.

Currently, talent conversations center around compensation, flexible work arrangements, and respect in the workplace. Certainly, these are important considerations for talent retention. Yet, there’s another critical tool in an executive arsenal that’s often overlooked: development planning.

Speaking with executives about talent—and particularly, individual development planning—I often hear a groan. When questioned, groaning executives reveal things like: “We don’t do development plans.” “We’re terrible at development planning.” “No one takes this seriously.” “It’s just a short box at the end of a performance review.”

Three fatal flaws in most development plans

Development planning is a critical, highly strategic activity. It’s not simply a box to check. Yet, even in the most positive, people-oriented cultures, development planning can elicit groans. Leaders are skeptical about the effectiveness of development planning. They do not see a direct connection to business outcomes, either for the effort as a whole or for individuals. Why spend valuable time on something that fails to achieve its objective?

In my experience, there are three fatal flaws in most development plans:

• Development planning is insufficiently forward-looking.

• Development objectives are not tied to specific competencies and/or business outcomes.

• Development actions lack deliberate follow-through.

Notably, a bad plan is worse than having no plan at all. Bad plans distort the purpose of development planning and perpetuate the impression of development planning as a value-draining activity.

What makes a good plan?

A key step toward advancing your career is success in your current role. Performance objectives typically define this; ideally individual objectives also tie to the organization’s strategic goals. As I say in my book, Charting the Course: CEO Tools to Align Strategy and Operations, a development plan goes further.

It provides a path to build capabilities that meet current and future business needs.

Naturally, a good plan includes the things lacking in the flawed plans above – forward-looking, tied to specific competencies and outcomes, and executed. A good plan is achievable, with a reasonable amount of stretch and deliberate, focused action.

To create a good plan:

• Start with a touch of aspiration, both for the individual and in concert with the organizational vision. Consider what competencies are needed for the future success of the business and the individual’s mastery of these. Then, overlay how the individual wants to contribute to the future business. Aligning individual and organizational aspirations is powerful and a strong motivator for action by both parties.

• Encourage a broader perspective. This prompts the individual to extend learning across networks, make connections to the business, and strengthen the organization’s collective capabilities. The more seasoned and senior the person, the more critical is it to deliberately seek external perspectives to enhance their own learning. Tools for this include executive networks, peer advisory, professional associations, and executive coaching.

• Include a timeline and approach to monitor progress. For individuals, monitoring progress makes it clear whether they are getting closer to their goals. For the organization, it informs overall talent strategy. It tells executives whether they’ll have the capabilities they need in sufficient quantity, when they need them. From there, they adapt to assure a ready of supply of qualified talent.

The CEO plays a defining role

Meaningful development planning starts of the top. In fact, the CEO plays a defining role in the success of development planning. More than simply ensuring development planning exists in the organization, a CEO also embraces their own development. Openly talking about the actions they’re taking to learn continuously sets the tone for the entire organization.

Better yet, CEOs engage their board. The board’s external perspective helps CEOs to identify blind spots and be ready for the future.

Next, CEOs assure each of their direct reports has a meaningful development plan and actively checks progress, perhaps during regular one-on-one conversations with the leader. These visible CEO behaviors highlight the value of development planning for both individuals and the business. In turn, they gain insights about their organization’s readiness to achieve its longer-term objectives.

Effective development planning positions your organization to have the right capabilities for the future. It demonstrates a commitment to your people and aids talent retention. Ultimately, this attention to people enhances the value you add to customers. When the CEO models effective development both for themselves and their leadership team they spur meaningful action throughout the organization.

Tara Rethore, CEO of Strategy for Real, works with CEOs, boards and executives to take strategy off the page and into action. Throughout her career, Tara has led strategy development and execution within global organizations and as a highly valued consultant. She is known for discovering leadership and strategy lessons in everyday situations which then become relatable examples for her clients. Currently, Tara serves on several private and nonprofit boards. She is also a Marshall Goldsmith Certified Stakeholder-Centered Coach. Tara earned an MBA from the University of Chicago. Learn more about making strategy work in Tara’s book, Charting the Course: CEO Tools to Align Strategy & Operations, or on Tara’s Real Strategy blog.