James is pretty typical of the modern, fast-rising, talented middle manager struggling to get to the top table. His pay and bonuses are healthy, even in these hard times. He is doing well, meeting targets and gaining a great reputation with his clients. The company is stable, and yet he has mentally taken the decision that it is better for him to find another employer than to stay put. Why? In his own words:

“ I don’t get the sense that my voice is being heard; that my ideas really matter. In every appraisal I’m told how good I am and how great my results are. Sure, they reward me financially. But I know they don’t really value me – because they don’t create opportunities for me to give of my best ideas.”

James is one of countless next-generation leaders who have ‘checked-out’, mentally and emotionally and will not stay with his employer for very much longer. His commitment to the company is waning – he puts it at no more than 60%, whereas it used to be “110%, if not more.” He is still professional in all of his dealings, but the fire and energy of total engagement is going out. If he stays, it will be extinguished completely. He knows it is now imperative, for his own well-being, that he moves.

Top talent retention is one of the biggest challenges facing European business today. What is too little recognised is that retention of talent is so much more than bumping up pay packets, handing out ‘loyalty cheques’ or packing off ‘award-winners’ to the Caribbean for some R&R in the sun.
The early Greeks – around 400BC – discovered something about the human condition, long before the FTSE 500 was even thought of. They recognised a link between human happiness and the development of intelligence; that people needed mental and emotional space to not only “find themselves”, but to express themselves. And if this space was not given, the lives of talented people would be stunted and society as a whole would be far poorer.

And so, led by characters such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others, they evolved the process called ‘Dialogue’. A typical meeting – an Assembly, they called it – contained around 6000 people; quite some meeting to manage!! Their Dialogues did not begin with an agenda; they began with a question. The Assembly would have to “suspend” thought, opinion and judgement as each contributor spoke; and subsequent speakers would have to build-on previous contributions before making their own. Their aim was for something new to arise; something beyond previous answers, something creative. Beyond that, their aim was to create an atmosphere of involvement and engagement of every participant; to ensure every person present was valued. It must have worked. The early Greek civilisation lasted 1500 years.

The experience of participants in Creative Conversation Circles is that they get plenty of space to think and then to contribute. The “discipline” of the Circles emulates the early Greeks. First, listen all the way through, and certainly not to the thoughts in your own whirling mind. Second, adopt an attitude of respect for the speaker. Next, suspend inner judgement. Finally, give voice to what you really think and feel, building on what has already taken place.

When well facilitated, the Circle nearly always delivers something creative. It might be a fresh idea or it might be looking at a problem from a different angle. More significantly, every participant in the dialogue knows that their point of view has been listened to, has been valued and that they have had the opportunity to contribute fully. They feel good about themselves. With that, their commitment grows to the Mission of the company, to its Core Values and to its future.

Getting the best out of people, and practically demonstrating that they are valued, is key to top talent retention. The drift towards acceptance of working from home is an additional challenge to achieving commitment and engagement, as British inventor Sir James Dyson recently pointed out. Because this challenge is less obvious and more subtle, it is often not recognised or responded to until the talent walks out of the door.

Actually, the problem started well before that. And the remedy was available in every meeting. Coaches are supposed to evolve solutions. Better still is to offer the right question. Here’s one for every senior manager or Leader: Do your meetings provide the mental and emotional space for every participant to give of their best and for their talent to be fully valued? If they don’t, don’t be surprised when your talent walks.

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