Third Time’s the Charm: How I Finally Got One of My Best Employees to Stay
The following is adapted from The Problem Isn’t Their Paycheck.
As a small business owner, you rely on your employees. A single person quitting can be a drastic reduction to your workforce. When that happens, who is usually left picking up the slack? That’s right: you.
If you can’t retain your employees, owning a business can quickly transform from a joy into a burden. I know this from firsthand experience running Stewardship, my mortgage, insurance, and investment management company. I also know from experience that getting your people to stay is easier said than done.
In this article, I’ll share the story of how one of my best employees, Mike, quit working for me—twice—and then finally stayed. Ultimately, it turned out that the problem wasn’t Mike at all, but me. The lessons I learned from Mike have led me to fundamentally change the way I run my business, and I hope they will change how you run your business too.
Since I first started Stewardship in 2007, only a handful of employees have ever left the company. Mike was the first employee who left—and it was entirely my fault.
I managed Mike the way the classic management books told me to. You know the ones I’m talking about—the ones that say we’re supposed to create goals that are just out of our employees’ reach. Our employees work their hardest to achieve those goals, always getting close but never quite hitting the moving target, despite most likely accomplishing more than they otherwise would have. The advice in these management books believes that in order to get the most out of employees, you have to squeeze it out of them.
I followed these tactics to the letter, which led to killing Mike’s confidence. There was no affirmation and zero real purpose behind those goals. I failed miserably as a leader and as a manager.
Unsurprisingly, unattainable goals did not work well for Mike. Not only did he not produce well, but he was also unbelievably discouraged—almost on the verge of tears at one point. I actually did shed tears because I was making this human being’s life worse.
Mike came to me and told me he couldn’t do it anymore. He hated his job, and he wanted to go find something he could be good at.
So he returned to his former job at a local university—the job he’d held before coming to work for me. As far as affirmation is concerned, this was a better job for Mike. He felt like he was way better at that than he was at mortgages.
But the one thing I had done right when he worked for me is I gave him freedom. There was no clocking in or out. I didn’t completely understand the importance of autonomy to the level we have now, but he had a lot of freedom to come and go.
At this new job, he felt like he was working for “the man,” clocking in, clocking out, with no meaning or importance to the work he was doing. Mike went to work because he had to.
Because he appreciated the freedom I had given him, Mike came to me and asked for his job back. I said all right, of course—he’s a hard worker and an amazing person. But I recognized that we’d had an issue before and decided that I was not going to ruin the affirmation piece this time.
We stopped having the traditional employee performance reviews with those impossible stretch goals. Instead, I did a new thing called an employer review, where he reviewed me. Rather than destroying his confidence with goals I knew he wasn’t going to hit, I asked questions to express my genuine care for him. I learned about his needs as an employee and acted on them as his leader.
As a result, Mike started doing better. He had more confidence, he produced really well, and he was thriving. I assumed that I had fixed the problem and that Mike was now happy working for me. Then he left again.
This time, Mike quit so that he and his wife could go to Thailand as missionaries fighting the sex trafficking trade.
Viewed objectively, the new job could be considered worse in almost every way. It paid much less and required Mike and his family to move to a different country. At the time he left, Mike was doing very well, producing at high levels and making a good living for his family.
When Mike left this second time, I ended up sleeping at the office and trying to do all the work myself. By then, I had come to depend on his amazingly high level of production. He had done well handling an important subsection of my business. His exit meant that I had to pick up the slack, and my business started to feel like a burden instead of a blessing. That’s when I knew I had to change.
Part of that change involved evaluating why such a talented employee would want to leave. Why did he seek a job that paid significantly less, involved much more difficult work, and required uprooting and transplanting his entire family?
There was one clear thing his new job provided that I hadn’t: purpose. Just the description of that job—fighting the sex trafficking trade—makes it clear he was making the world a better place.
In contrast, I didn’t connect everything Mike was doing with a purpose. As a result, he felt as if his job didn’t have meaning. Mike is a dream employee. He’s extremely intelligent, very trustworthy, and a high performer. But because I didn’t have a great purpose in my business, and I couldn’t put the things he did to that purpose, he was open to other opportunities.
While I had a general idea of Stewardship’s purpose, it had never left my head. I hadn’t formally created a purpose, defined it, and woven it into my business.
So I sat down and figured out our unified purpose, actually writing it down. I used it to hire amazing new talent and create a growing, thriving company culture. And then I unified our entire team around that purpose.
When Mike came back from Thailand four years later, I had completely changed how we do things at Stewardship. Our internal culture was so different and so much better. We had a clear purpose, the entire team was on board with that purpose, and Stewardship had become one of the most attractive places to work in my community.
I had a list of more than one hundred qualified people who expressed a desire to be a part of my team—and Mike was one of them. I happily asked him to come back to work for me, and now he runs one of the most profitable divisions of my company. He does work that matters, his life has more meaning through his employment, and he feels the impact that he makes on the community.
It took three tries, but I finally built a work environment where great people like Mike wanted to stay. Honestly, Mike quitting not once, but twice was one of the best things to happen to Stewardship. It forced me to take a hard look at how I was running my company and make improvements.
My experience with Mike taught me the key to retaining employees: freedom, affirmation, and purpose. By providing these three things, you can create a work culture where employees feel autonomous, confident, and fulfilled by their work. That is how you get people to stay.
For more advice on increasing employee retention, you can find The Problem Isn’t Their Paycheck on Amazon.
Grant Botma is the founder of Stewardship and the leader of its nationally ranked team of top producers. Thanks to a thriving company culture, Grant’s team has won numerous awards, including national performance rankings like “Top 1%” and “Top 100.” Grant’s leadership has also grown Stewardship to be an Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Company In America. He lives in Arizona with his wife, Jodie and their three children, Cambria, Parker, and Ellenie. To learn more about Stewardship, visit moneywellrooted.com.