CEO for a day: thoughts on talent retention.

Workplace Generational Transitioning

For 12 years, I’ve been involved in thinking about attracting and retaining employees, and workplace generational transitioning.  This has been a common thread from early in my career when I was a business manager, to the role I fulfilled with a consulting firm advising a major Atlanta corporation on workplace “generation gaps,” to my excitement at today’s entrepreneurial youth culture.  The representatives of that culture are interested in constant innovation.  They’re ideally suited to times best summarized by that old Rochefoucauld quote: “the only thing constant in life is change.”  Imagine a group of workers who embrace change, rather than hide from it.

I mentioned workplace generational transitioning.  Ten years ago, when we were advising leaders of the Baby Boomer generation on how to team with and learn from Generation X, and vice versa, we couldn’t predict at least two recessions (2001, 2008+).  The impact of the recessions is that fewer Baby Boomers are heading for the door right at “retirement age,” or taking early retirement.  [Source note: unfortunately, I haven’t seen any recent studies on the average age of CEOs.  The last study I saw was from the late ’00s and featured CEOs in their mid 50s.]

So that bought the executives in major companies a bit more time, whether they wanted it or not.  Have they been using that time wisely?  I’m not so sure.  I believe this major company in Atlanta was ahead of its time, because I didn’t see similar courses offered at another corporation close to my heart until years and years later.  Think of your few favorite Fortune 500 companies.  Whether you’re a young gun or a member of the old guard, you have to admit that those companies matter right now.  But will they succeed at attracting and retaining young talent, while simultaneously passing along the knowledge and life lessons of the older employees?  It’s probable that many of them are perceived, internally and externally, as being too big to fail.  And we have recent experience in how that works out.

Innovators seek new opportunities

Hiring and retaining innovators is job one.  Silicon Valley provides a great example that we can see playing out in front of our eyes in real-time:  the culture, the level of talent, the influx of ideas, and the influx of capital in that part of California is an accelerant.  Here’s what we see:

  • Prized talent has numerous choices of workplaces and roles in the ecosystem
  • The mega-corporations in the ecosystem (for example: Google, Facebook) are either concerned about losing top talent, or eager to never lose their talent edge (1) (2) (3)
  • These companies offer special advantages to retain talent.  For example, they offer to allow employees to run their own micro-companies (startups) using their employer’s money and resources.
  • Even when offered every conceivable advantage, some employees still leave: they want different projects, or they want to start their own companies. (4)

Though Silicon Valley is an accelerated case and primarily represents a certain set of talent, this same cycle will play out in other major corporations, in most departments within those companies.

An innovator — that is, someone who not only has respect for a big idea, but acts on it and gets things done — will always be interested in a new challenge.  This innovator might ride the wave of available small funding (government-guaranteed small business loans, or venture capital), and start her own company.  Or she might seek out opportunities with a competitor who makes talent acquisition and retention a bigger priority than her current company.

In this study, two things are certain.  The first: a time of planning for mass retirement of an older generation is the wrong time to be losing young talent.

CEO for a day

The second thing that is certain is that companies need to be proactive about finding ways to retain employees who are committed to innovation.  In 2009, Facebook started a “startup incubator” to encourage the development of nascent tech companies.  In 2010, Google pondered setting up its own internal startup incubator to ensure its employees could remain with Google while pursuing their dreams of being Founders.  In 2011, Facebook will purchase approximately 15 small tech companies for their talent. (5)

If you’re a decision maker or employee at a company, no matter how large or small, I’m convinced that your company needs to do something very similar.  And if you’re a student, you need to look for this in your next company.  Enough with low-level corporate titles.  In major corporations, Fred the Engineer might work for two years to become Fred the Engineer II.  If you can’t let your employees found their own internal startups, then your company needs to make each innovator feel like the CEO, Founder, COO or Chairman of the Board of a specific role or project.

To that end, I offer a bigger idea that ensures employee engagement and retains talent.  Let’s have major companies commit to a program to put someone into any C-suite role they want for a day.  For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll say most people would want to be CEO for a day.

The company would somehow select a group of innovative employees to compete for a specific time period, for example, for a fiscal quarter.  Perhaps the winner is chosen by performance reviews, amount of money saved on a project, amount of time ahead of schedule on a project.  Whatever the case, when our innovative winner is chosen, she gets to truly step into her dream role.

Let the “real” CEO play an advisory role for that day.  But let the winning innovator truly take the lead on some decisions.  A breakfast meeting with other C-suite executives.  A photo op or television appearance scheduled to promote the program as a whole, where the CEO for a day proudly describes what she’s doing on that day.  Let her set part of the agenda to be a focus on one particular pet project, where she is empowered to call or meet with any employees to move things forward.

The day will be over far too soon, but the innovator will never forget it, and it will drive her even more.   The innovator will probably learn how tough the CEO role can be.  (Ev Williams of Twitter said it was a “sucky job.”) (6)

Simultaneously, the CEO and other C-level executives will learn something about innovation, guaranteed.  These senior managers will be exposed to passion about a particular project that they might have otherwise have ignored.   They will have helped bridge generational gaps between all of the participants.  They could repeat the program as often as once per quarter, and the waiting list to participate would always be full.

CEO for a day is only one idea.  It’s a paltry contribution to a discussion that needs to be happening every day among management at companies all over the world.  But I think it’s a positive idea, and I’d certainly love to read about it in the news every quarter.

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