This post was originally published on Alpine Investors’ Founder Graham Weaver’s blog.
By Graham Weaver, Founder, Alpine Investors
I frequently hear CEOs complain about the “War for Talent” and how difficult it is to retain good people. Some leaders grumble about Gen Z and millennials, claiming these generations are responsible for igniting the “Great Resignation.” They will say, “These generations aren’t like we were back in the day. They have no loyalty.”
In the same breath, the work-from-home or return-to-work debate rages on nearly three years since the beginning of COVID. Companies like Goldman Sachs, Netflix and Amazon are mandating or highly suggesting that employees work in the office full-time, while other companies like REI, Deloitte, Slack and Coinbase are going “remote first,” selling office buildings or closing them down.
First, with respect to the “Great Resignation,” as soon as you start blaming entire generations for your problems, you’ve already lost. The issue is that two years of remote work imposed by COVID recalibrated the work landscape. The workplace is no longer regional, defined by a radius around your physical office. It’s now global and defined by the competitiveness of a company’s employment and career offerings. Millennials and Gen Zers are behaving rationally; they are taking the best jobs and working environments available to them.
A Leader’s First Job: Get the Right People on the Bus
When I talk to leaders about hiring the right people for their company, they nod their heads. “Yes, people are important. For sure. It’s a top priority.” Then I ask those same leaders to take out their calendars and show me all the blocks of time they spent on hiring and/or retaining their top people during the past month. They look at me with a blank stare or tell me, “That’s HR’s job.”
Getting the right people on your team is the single most important role of a leader. Show me a company that is successful, and I’ll show you a company that has amazing people. Show me a company with amazing people, and I’ll show you a leader who prioritizes people. It is a virtuous cycle, and it ties directly into this ongoing debate.
In his best-selling book, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins describes how, as many businesses scale, leaders add layers of process, bureaucracy and hierarchy. Collins shares how George Rathmann, co-founder of Amgen, avoided this trap (Side note: This is one of my all-time favorite sentences ever written in a business book):
He understood that the purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline — a problem that largely goes away if you have the right people in the first place.
With respect to the work-from-home debate, many companies demand that people work in the office, often assuming they will be more productive under a watchful eye. Other companies lose their most entrepreneurial employees by creating layers of process and bureaucracy. Both are often symptoms of having the wrong people on the bus. If you find yourself creating rules, ask yourself: Who are you creating those rules for? Likely, your problem is not having a lack of rules. It is having the wrong employees.
A Leader’s Second Job: Retain your Best People
One of the most difficult and important roles of a leader is to create a culture where the best people want to work and spend their careers. If you truly want to retain “A” players, you must pay them like “A” players and treat them like “A” players – or they will find a company that will. It means having an open dialogue between leaders and employees to co-create the best solutions for your company.
In a single word: Listen.
That doesn’t mean that remote work, compensation, or other cultural decisions are easy; they are some of the most difficult decisions leaders make. Some employees want to work remotely full-time, others want to work in-person, and others want a hybrid. In a recent study, only 17% of non-executive employees said they want to work in the office every day, yet many companies still require their staff to do exactly that.
If you get the first part right – you get the right people on the bus – then you have the luxury of trusting them. Then make your “North Star” building a culture where the best people will want to work for the long-term — and make decisions from that mindset. In Alpine’s case, that meant speaking with our employees about their needs, and ultimately opening a second office in New York City where employees on the East Coast could be closer to their families, offering hybrid working environments for all employees and a remote-only alternative in a few cases.
I’m not suggesting that our solution is the right one or that other companies should follow it. If these decisions were easy, everyone would have a great work culture. Yet only one-third of employees worldwide are engaged in and enthusiastic about their work. It’s not easy.
My point instead is to offer a framework for making decisions:
Hire the best employees you possibly can and make your cultural decisions around retaining them for the long run.
Spend YOUR time (and your senior executives’ time) on these decisions – there is nothing more important.
Wouldn’t it be nice to stop arguing about which generation is more loyal and instead get to work on creating a culture worth being loyal to?
About Graham Weaver
Graham is the Founder and CEO of Alpine Investors and spends nearly all his time helping develop the strategy, direction and priorities of the firm. Graham has been in private equity for over 20 years, starting Alpine in his dorm room at Stanford Business School. When he’s not inspiring growth at Alpine, Graham teaches a top-rated strategic management course at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB). Graham holds an MBA from Stanford University and a Bachelors of Science in Engineering from Princeton University, where he graduated with highest honors and was captain of the national championship lightweight crew team.