Wendy Tan

Human Faces of COVID-19: Shifting from Helplessness to Helpfulness

We are impacted by COVID-19 in some form or other. You probably know someone whose loved one has been tested positive. You probably know someone whose livelihood is severely impacted and worrying how to take care of their family. You probably know business owners who face the threat of closing down because suddenly there is no more revenue. You probably read about the thousands of people who spend their life now in ICU clinging onto their fragile lives. You probably see how healthcare workers are stretched to their human limits taking care of patients who burst through the seams of hospital capacity.

Never before has there been such a tsunamic impact on people globally, regardless of age, social class and background. Never before have we been caught with our pants down and under-prepared to respond effectively. Never before had doctors, confronted by the severe lack of ventilators, had to shoulder the burden of deciding who lives and who dies.

The human faces of COVID-19 are multi-faceted. A relatively mild impact would be the inconvenience of quarantine, isolation from working at home, irritation of entertaining pesky kids celebrating school closure, washing our hands constantly or scrambling to panic buy some essentials at the supermarket.

But consider the COVID impact on these other fellow human beings.

  1. Workers: No Money, No Family

Human impact of COVIDSource: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/singapore-malaysian-worker-lockdown-covid19-coronavirus-12572416

Sumon, father of 2 girls, is one of the 100,000 of Malaysians, who chose to be in Singapore during the 2-week lockdown in Malaysia. He usually travels 2 hours daily to get into Singapore to work and returns home to his family. “I haven’t finished paying the instalments on my house. There’re also electricity bills,” he says (CNA Asia, 25 Mar 2020). His wife’s shop will be closed with the lockdown. He has missed his daughter’s birthday. With tears in his eyes, he says, “I feel sad thinking about her. We’re very close.” With the extension of the lockdown in Malaysia beyond 31 March 2020, it is uncertain when Sumon will see his family again.

Sumon is just one example of the thousands who are separated from their family. He counts himself lucky that he still has an income, what about others? Airplanes are grounded. Restaurants are closed. Events are cancelled. Hotels are empty. The livelihood of workers and professionals in these industries are at risk. International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates 25 million jobs could be lost due to COVID-19. In the 2008 financial crisis, 22 million jobs were lost (ILO, 18 March 2020). What happens when one’s means of livelihood has been robbed?

COVID human impact


  1. Healthcare Workers: Exhaustion, Sickness and Even Death

Fighting the virus in the frontline, healthcare workers endure long hours in their protective gear. Chen Ying, a nurse in Zhejiang called on duty on the first day of Chinese New Year, often works till 2 am. As she walks to her dormitory home, keeping her company is her boyfriend. Though exhausted, chatting with him on the video chat keeps her heart warm. The couple has postponed their plans to get married on Valentine’s Day. Her face shows the marks from wearing protective gear for long hours.

Recover from COVIDSource: http://www.china.org.cn/china/2020-02/14/content_75704251_3.htm

More than 3000 Chinese healthcare workers have been infected with the virus (ICN COVID-19 Update). New York Times report that nearly 14% of Spain’s 40,000 confirmed coronavirus cases are medical professionals. That is 5,400 doctors and nurses. In Italy, France and Spain, more than 30 healthcare professionals have died of the coronavirus, and thousands of others have had to self-isolate (New York Times, 24 Mar 2020). The most common reason is the lack of protective gear. The very people who heal the sick are now sick themselves. When happens when the healers are down?

  1. Patients: No Breath and then Death

Very high fever. Dry cough. Breathing difficulty. These are the symptoms of COVID-19. A Malaysian patient, in his 30s, describes his experience, “I was coughing like crazy until the acid in my stomach came out. I was scared and had thoughts of death.” Another patient, Tara Jane Langston, a 39 year-old fitness enthusiast, did not think she could contract coronavirus. She described breathing was so painful “like having glass in her lungs”. To warn that anyone can contract the virus, she created a video. Other patients use ventilators, which help them to continue breathing long enough for the body to recover on its own. These patients are probably the luckier ones.

Source: https://www.businessinsider.sg/coronavirus-woman-hospital-warns-people-who-doubt-will-affect-them-2020-3

Source: https://www.businessinsider.sg/video-tour-coronavirus-icu-ward-bergamo-italy-worst-apocalyptic-2020-3

As of 28 March 2020, more than 600,000 people have been infected; more than 27,400 people have died. Italy alone reported 793 deaths on a single day on 21 March. Results of modelling efforts on the infection and death rates vary widely. A study by Imperial College London estimated if nothing was done to rein in the virus, 2.2 million Americans could die. With interventions such as social distancing, the number of deaths could drop to 200,000. Still, this means between 160 million to 214 million Americans could be infected by the end of summer (Atlantic, 25 March 2020). These numbers are staggering. This will not be the worst.

Over lunch, I spoke to a dear friend, an Indian national, about the impact of the coronavirus in her country. Without the luxury of social distancing in the slums, about 300 to 590 million people can contract the virus. The lack of medical resources will mean an approach to “let nature take its course”. This means expecting the weak, old and sick to die whilst the healthy ones develop antibodies naturally. Literally, the survival of the fittest. This herd immunity strategy has a huge price. The death rate is expected to be 10% more than the annual number of deaths in India, so that’s a blip in numbers. My heart sank. “Really, just a blip in numbers”, that’s the value of human lives?

Source: New Straits Times, 22 Mar 2020

Without good knowledge of self-protection, sense of social responsibility and strong medical infrastructure, the COVID-19 impact in developing countries is likely to be catastrophic. In these countries, people cannot stay away from work if they have no money, Africa is woefully ill-equipped to deal with COVID-19. At this moment, no one has yet to estimate the casualties in these developing countries. But it is expected to be bleak.

Recover from COVID

Source: https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2020/03/26/africa-is-woefully-ill-equipped-to-cope-with-covid-19


So What?

Knowing all of this, how should we respond, and what can we do about it? The scale of this catastrophe fills me with a sense of overwhelming helplessness, as I am sure it does for many too. With every story that I read, I find myself asking, “What can I do?”

To release that tension one day, I went for a long jog to clear my mind and let the emotions settle. To my pleasant surprise, my mind began to reframe all of the anxiety and hopelessness; I asked: how can I turn this feeling of helplessness into helpfulness? I’m not a politician or biomedical manufacturer, nor am I a frontline healthcare worker or a superhero. In fact, not many of us are. However, what I do know is that, like all of these people in the first line of action, and all of those people hit hardest with the impact of this virus, I am a human being. And as a human being, I can be resilient, and I can put myself in a position to act within my own circle of influence. 

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/covid19-coronavirus-education-learning-centre-tuition-enrichment-12587216

Bridging reality and hopefulness at home

As a parent, it is my duty to keep my children safe and educate them on what is happening in the world, so that they grow up understanding the fragility of life and beyond that, that they may choose kindness. Every night at 9 pm, I round up my children to watch news on TV together – a guided understanding of the world beyond the comfort of our home. Finn, my middle child, was shocked when he learned that some migrant Indians had to walk 200 km to get home when the country locked down. Even though these experiences might scare them, the reality of the world helps to put their worldview into perspective. As a mother, this means bringing impact and hope to the future generations too. With this comes the question that they learn about through these stories: how can I make the world around me a better place? How do I bring hope?

Likewise, as a business owner, I choose to support our workers as much as we can. In climates like these, companies may consider pay cuts instead of retrenchments as a first option. However, if retrenchments are inevitable, do it compassionately. As an entrepreneur, create and scale solutions to these problems. Sir James Dyson designed a ventilator in 10 days and 15,000 units will be produced. CEO of Razer, Tan Min Liang, plans to donate 1 million masks to affected countries to fight COVID. As key decision leaders in your scene, you have the potential to make impact at a scale, directly with the people underneath your wing. In seasons where it may feel as though everyone is trying to fight for the same area of the pie, ask how we may expand the pie in a mutually beneficial way?

Source: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/cnainsider/food-charities-volunteers-covid19-coronavirus-appeal-12435678

While not all of us may be mothers or business owners, we would all, in one way or another, have an immediate circle of people we call friends. And as a friend, it is also our duty to reach out to others – including strangers – to show your support and care. As a child, take care of our parents and spend time with them (virtually, too) even as you encourage them to stay at home (much to my amusement, my father claimed that he is staying at home, but at a friend’s home!). 

Lastly, as a global citizen, which we all definitely are, be interested in what’s happening in the world, and be an actor. These times call for all of us to be part of the solution. Be whole ourselves, be connected to our community and lead from whatever position we are. We are in this together!


Written by:


Wendy Tan
Author, Wholeness in a Disruptive World
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  Wendy Tan   Mar 30, 2020   Wholeness@Work   Comments Off on Human Faces of COVID-19: Shifting from Helplessness to Helpfulness   Read More

Viral Impact of our Choices

The viral impact of our choices. Whilst the pandemic seems overwhelming, it is within our power to make choices for the good of the whole. In this article, I contrast three scenarios of what Singapore did differently. It is possible to reverse this downward spiral by focusing on the whole and our individual role in it.

  Wendy Tan   Mar 30, 2020   Wholeness@Work   Comments Off on Viral Impact of our Choices   Read More

How to Become a Talent Magnet

Wise leaders build engagement by becoming magnets for high­-performing talent.

Never before have organizations paid more attention to talent — keeping it, attracting it, developing it and engaging it.

Talent is no longer simply a numbers game. It’s about survival. It’s about winning market share and bringing on new investors, clients and big contracts. Companies depend on their top performers to innovate and differentiate themselves from their competitors. They’re reliant on their
employees to thrive.

Executives, line managers and the learning and development professionals who support them agree that engaging and retaining talent is a core business initiative. In fact, many enterprises have elevated talent retention to the top tier of objectives, on a par with generating revenue
and managing costs.

In support, leaders constantly seek new ways to build everyday engagement — the brand of engagement that is natural, effective and sustainable. Wise leaders build engagement by taking a lesson from science. The magic and science of magnetism has many relateable applications for engagement and retention. Let’s face it, most of us could be more magnetic — and most of us would like our bosses to do the same.

Magnetism is an extraordinary power that attracts or repels. It gets its name from Magnesia, Turkey, where more than 2,000 years ago the Greeks found rock that possessed mysterious powers. The rock, a form of iron ore called magnetite, could attract metals, making the rock and the metal stick together.

A magnet is a substance — usually a metal, such as iron or steel — that has been magnetized so that it will behave like magnetite. Any metal that can do this is called magnetic.

What’s a Talent Magnet?

Magnetism can help leaders understand human reactions at work. That understanding is often the first step to increasing leadership effectiveness and employee engagement.

Managers can be talent magnets, and decide how much energy they devote to attracting and developing talent. While organizations have magnetic forces by virtue of their mission, vision and values, the manager must translate those forces into everyday action.

Managers can attract and hold talent. An organization as a whole, a business unit, function, team or person can be a talent magnet. Because managers have the most power and influence in the engagement and retention arena, we’ll focus on them.

Managers decide how much energy they devote to attracting and developing talent and translate those forces into everyday action.

When leaders have strong magnetism, they feel it. So do others. Energy, morale, engagement and productivity are measurably high. Recruiting talent is easier because people want to work for talent magnets. Talent magnets get positive press. If leaders recognize and use their own magnetic powers, they can create more, achieve more and earn more.

But what if leaders aren’t magnetic? Well, they’re in trouble. Finding and keeping top talent makes or breaks a team, business unit and, ultimately, a company.

The good news: Even the most nonmagnetic leaders can create, increase and sustain magnetism.

Here are some examples of how magnetism works in talent retention:

  • Every magnet has a magnetic field around it. Every talent magnet creates a culture that attracts and keeps talented people.
  • The stronger the magnet, the larger the magnetic field. The more magnetic managers are, the more people they affect.
  • If you break a magnet in pieces, you’ll produce new magnetic fields around each new piece. Magnetic managers create more magnets by sharing their power and ability with others.
  • Metal objects that attach to magnets become magnetic, too. Employees of talent magnets attract others, at least while they work for a magnetic manager.
  • Something that behaves like a magnet after it leaves the field of the inducing magnet is said to have residual magnetism. When managers lose talent magnets to the competition, they lose a crucial competitive edge.
  • The attraction of two magnets toward one another depends on how close they are and how strong the magnetic force is within the magnet. Talent magnets get to know their people well. They get close and stay close, learning all they can about their employees’ motivations and desires.
  • If a magnet is suspended in air, it will always point in a north­-south direction. A compass always finds magnetic north. Magnetic managers create, share and lead by a strong vision.
  • One can create a magnet by giving it an electric charge or by putting a specific metal in the mix, like iron. Talent magnets know when and how to boost engagement through learning and development. They take action when something employees want is missing.
  • One can demagnetize a magnet in many ways. Managers can put people off by actions they take or fail to take.

Identifying the ‘Sticking Features’

What makes an organization, team or leader magnetic? Decades of research confirm that most workers want fair pay and a good work environment. Beyond that, they want exciting, meaningful work, a chance to grow, and a good boss. These are sticking features that people have in common.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story because everyone has a unique sticking features list. If leaders guess at what their talented people want, they’ll often guess wrong. Instead, managers at all levels will do well to stop guessing and start conducting stay interviews with every one of their employees.

Stay interviews are conversations between managers and their employees that intend to tell people how much they’re valued and to learn what will keep them engaged and on the team. Stay interviews prevent exit interviews.

Managers need to discover what people really want and need to bring their discretionary effort to work and to stay in the organization. As part of a stay interview, for instance, one manager might ask their employee: “Which part of your job do you wish you didn’t have to do, and which part would you like to expand?”

That simple question can open up a conversation that leads to job enrichment and increased engagement.

Managers today face more to do with less time in which to do it. They need to recognize that every interaction with direct reports is an opportunity to create, increase or sustain magnetism.

Managers today face more to do with less time in which to do it. They need to recognize that every interaction with direct reports is an opportunity to create or increase magnetism.

Create Magnetism

Once managers know which sticking features matter most to their employees, they’re ready to create magnetism.

Apply an electrical charge. For some employees, the electrical charge comes from a career discussion, a new learning opportunity or a much­desired “thank you” from the boss. Talent magnets learn what kind of charge their people want.

Consider this hypothetical example: When Sergey’s boss asked what he wanted to learn next year, he said, “I’d like to improve my negotiating skills.” They began a three-­step learning process. Here are the steps they followed and how it worked out for Sergey.

Step 1 — Conscious Observation: Sergey’s boss selected someone who was exceptionally skilled at negotiating for Sergey to observe. Later, Sergey and his boss discussed what Sergey learned and would do differently.

Step 2 — Selected Participation: Sergey’s boss allowed him to take a well­defined but limited role in a negotiation. The goal was to let Sergey practice without feeling overwhelmed. Afterwards, Sergey and his boss discussed what worked and what to improve.

Step 3 — Key Responsibility: Sergey’s boss gave him primary responsibility for a project that required excellent negotiation skills. Sergey completed the entire negotiation with the vendor and was accountable for the outcome. His boss was present, of course, but would have stepped in only if Sergey requested his support. Afterward, his boss asked him what worked well and why.

It worked. One year later, Sergey is thrilled with his job and continues to develop mastery as a negotiator for his organization.

Put some metal in the mix. Some people want a deeper relationship with their boss, while others want more fun at work or more time away from work. True magnet managers will discover what’s missing and partner with their employees to add those ingredients to the job.

Talent magnets are always curious about what’s working and what’s missing. They then collaborate with their employees to find the right formula for magnetism.

Increase Magnetism

Sometimes leaders have magnetism, but not often or powerful enough to attract, engage and keep the best people. The good news is magnets can get stronger.

Turn up the voltage. Some people would like more praise or encouragement. Others want to know their bosses care about them, their lives and their careers. Talent magnets should notice when employees’ job enthusiasm appears flat. They can even use failure as a learning experience.

Get bigger magnets. Magnetic managers often connect themselves to other magnets, becoming more powerful themselves. They reach up and out to learn and give more to those who follow them. In the race to engage and retain talent, there is never a time to say, “I’ve done enough.” There is always a way to improve the relationship or enrich the work.

Recharge. Talent magnets check in often with their talented employees. They want to know how the sticking features have changed. What do they want more of or less of from work? Listening is the most powerful tool in the talent magnet’s toolkit.

Magnetism can make objects attract or repel each other. It’s sad but true that actively disengaged or toxic bosses can drive talent out the door. Retention researchers agree that people seldom leave organizations; they leave managers.

Magnetic managers need to be vigilant and courageous. They regularly recharge themselves and whom they manage. They mentor, manage and ultimately remove demagnetizing forces from their teams.

Talent magnets are a powerful force for an organization. They attract others who can help them build and sustain engaged, highly productive work forces. They watch for and disempower demagnetizing forces.

The strongest leaders ask themselves how they might grow even stronger or know their people better. They ponder how they might increase the electrical charge help employees find missing ingredients or turn up the voltage.

The payoff for talent magnets and the organizations they lead is profound. It can make the difference between an organization being mediocre and it being hugely successful.

By Beverly Kaye & Sharon Jordan-­Evans
May 18, 2018

  Wendy Tan   Feb 13, 2019   Career Development, Engagement   Comments Off on How to Become a Talent Magnet   Read More

Plenty of Room to Grow

Career Growth

Moving up isn’t the only way to achieve successful career development.


Engagement surveys reveal, again and again, that individuals join organizations to pursue career possibilities and they leave organizations if those opportunities don’t materialize. In fact, a recent Gallup study reported that the majority of millennials—projected to be 75 percent of the workforce by 2025—say that professional growth and continued development is very important in their decision to join an organization or take on a new role.

Recruiters who describe an organization as having a development culture need to understand what it means to follow through on that promise. Company culture must meet employee expectations and desires for learning and growing. When the reality doesn’t match the promise, a coveted new hire can easily disengage or become a quick quit.

It’s no secret that yesterday’s career ladders have faded or lost rungs along the way to today’s flatter organizational structures. Goals defined only by moves up the hierarchy and recognition systems centered primarily on celebrating promotions are setting the stage for frustration, disappointment, disengagement, and potentially loss of talent. The very definitions of growth and career development need to be broadened to encompass the full scope of growth options that exist in the world of work today.

So, what’s the answer?

Organizations are striving to stay ahead of the competition and on the cutting-edge of serving customers. Recruiters and HR professionals need to see return on the time, money, and energy invested in attracting talent. Managers are focused on building and engaging a team of valued players who are ready, willing, and able to deliver results. Individuals are developing current and future capabilities to realize their career aspirations. Continuous growth opportunities will meet the needs of all entities.

Organizations that meet the challenge of providing continued professional growth in spite of fewer promotional opportunities will attract and retain talent. Managers who recognize, embrace, and encourage nontraditional career paths will build reputations as development-minded leaders and establish trusting relationships with their teams. And employees whose growth needs are met will see a future within the organization and remain engaged and committed to the work.

A good place to start achieving this is recognition.

1. Recognize the issue—and the opportunity. Recognition of the issue and more importantly, the opportunity that lies within the issue, unlocks a wealth of opportunities for individuals and potential for the organization. Many traditional career paths don’t exist anymore, but in many cases, fulfilling alternatives have replaced them. Candid conversations with candidates, new hires, and tenured employees about opportunities to grow professionally create solid partnerships and send the message that growth is still there—it just may be packaged differently.

Nontraditional options can bridge functional groups and uncover potential paths by triggering interest in professional passions that employees may not be aware are possible. For example:

  • IT professionals can have transferable skills for product design and marketing roles;
  • instructors see line management assignments that draw on their expertise in the field of learning while affording the chance to stretch into new areas; and
  • a sales leader can excel as a direct customer contact manager.

The key, however, is ensuring transparency regarding what continued growth looks like within the organization. For many, the mental image of growth is still a step up a ladder. While the reality may be very different, it is no less valuable toward the ultimate goal of building a personally meaningful career for individuals while simultaneously building future capability for the organization.

2. Recognize the options. When multiple options for learning and developing are recognized and consistently communicated across an organization, a growth culture is formed. There are six types of experiences that, when mixed and matched within a career pattern, create a kaleidoscope of development opportunities. They include:

  • Enrichment: growing in place. Not all workers want to move from one role to another, but growth within current roles can and should happen. Through enrichment and learning programs, individuals feed their passion about the work, stretch to build new capabilities, and grow professionally. Enrichment builds resilience and fosters engagement.
  • Exploratory: testing the water. So much can be learned from simply trying on a role to see if it fits. Exploratory experiences can identify future roles that are ideal as well as eliminate others from consideration. They can also provide a road map of the behaviors and skills needed to be considered for a future role. Whether the employee steps into a temporary assignment or simply conducts a series of informational interviews, exploratory experiences can uncover details that contribute to informed decisions and better choices for the future.
  • Lateral: moving sideways. A sideways experience is an opportunity to leverage transferable skills acquired at the same or similar level while learning a new aspect of the business. In many organizations, movement among teams is more fluid and frequent than in the past and offers the opportunity to grow. Lateral experiences can build breadth of expertise, which senior leaders value. Employees who get hands-on experience in multiple areas learn functional interdependencies and gain a deeper understanding of how the organization works.
  • Realignment: stepping back. Too often labeled as a negative, stepping back can at times be the perfect choice. When a talented individual voluntarily realigns by stepping back and continues to contribute to the success of the organization, the employee and the organization win. Realignment experiences are often valuable when changing disciplines or fields. Whether changing disciplines or simply adjusting the work-life balance scale, taking on a role of less scope or responsibility could lead to greater engagement and satisfaction.
  • Vertical: moving on up. Promotional experiences still exist in organizations. It is critical that individuals choosing to pursue steps up clearly understand what to expect and examine the downsides as well as the upsides of the new role. Promotions can be enticing and they can also be rewarding. The key is in making sure those rewards—visibility, influence, compensation, and the like—are in sync with any accompanying trade-offs—longer hours, increased pressure, greater risks, and so on. When the time is right and the role checks all the boxes, then up is the answer.
  • Departure: leaving the nest. Often, there comes a time in most careers when stepping out the door is the next best option. If a particular competency or skill set can’t be acquired, or the environment or culture is not the right fit, then leaving might be best for the employee and the organization. The key here is to ensure that there is always an opportunity to return in the future. For many individuals, the chance to step out—even for a short period of time—and gain another perspective or experience is an opportunity that shouldn’t be ignored. Some of those individuals may decide to return at some point, bringing with them new skills.

3. Recognize growth and celebrate it! Ensuring that employees are encouraged to stretch and learn, are coached when redirection is needed, and are celebrated when milestones are mastered, builds a sought-after development culture. When employees’ efforts to grow in traditional or nontraditional ways are acknowledged, a clear message is sent that the leader involved, as well as the organization they are a part of values and recognizes that growth. Employees want challenges in their work, opportunities to learn new things, greater employability, and leaders who value their contributions and care about their futures. These are all possible by expanding the definition of career growth.

Beverly Kaye is the founder of Career Systems International (now doing business as Talent Dimensions) and the author of multiple books on career development and engagement. Lindy Williams is a consultant with Talent Dimensions and the co-author of “Up Is Not the Only Way: Rethinking Career Mobility” along with Kaye and Lynn Cowart.

  Wendy Tan   Feb 13, 2019   Career Development, Engagement   Comments Off on Plenty of Room to Grow   Read More

The 3 Essential Jobs That Most Retention Programs Ignore


by Lynn Cowart, Cile Johnson and Beverly Kaye
January 05, 2018

For more than a decade, leading human resource strategists have hit on a recurring theme: You want your star players working in the roles that matter most to the business. For example, in 2009 professors Brian Becker, Mark Huselid, and Richard Beatty estimated that in most companies less than 15% of jobs are what they call strategic positions and said management should focus “disproportionate investments” on finding A players for those jobs. USC’s John Boudreau, CEO adviser Ram Charan, and consultants at Bain & Company, McKinsey, and Korn Ferry have made similar arguments.

Building on these ideas, we have identified six leverage roles where you want to make sure you have — and keep — your highest-caliber people. But over and over again in our three decades of experience as talent development and retention specialists, we’ve seen that companies consistently overlook half of them. As a result, these companies risk losing highly effective people in positions that have much greater impact on performance than many leaders realize.

The roles that already tend to get lots of attention at most companies are:

  • Indispensable senior leaders. The chief marketing officers at consumer products companies, the heads of design at luxury apparel companies, and the heads of logistics at large retailers are cases in point.
  • Connectors in the middle. Although long ignored, these middle management positions have become increasingly recognized as critical to executing a company’s strategy. In sales-driven companies (think pharmaceuticals and industrial equipment), they are often field sales managers who direct dozens of salespeople in the highest-volume regions.
  • High-potential future leaders. These are up-and-comers expected to fill the organization’s top management positions.

But most organizations we know give little if any attention to retaining people who occupy three other roles. These overlooked roles are:

  • Essential experts. These are jobs in R&D, technology, and other areas vital to a firm’s strategic direction, product development, and process efficiency. These people tend not to have — or want — management responsibilities.
  • Customer experience creators. People in this role regularly interact with a company’s most valuable customers and determine whether they stay customers. The jobs are in sales, customer contact centers, and field service positions.
  • Critical contractors. They are not employees; they are contingent workers who are nonetheless vital to an organization’s R&D, marketing, and other key processes. They are different from the standard independent contractor in that they are high-priced free agents with extremely valuable, 
and rare, expertise that a company doesn’t possess.

None of these jobs are at the top of the organization chart, and with the possible exception of some customer experience creators, the people who hold them aren’t looking to move up in the organization. Because these aren’t management-track jobs, companies often overlook the importance of keeping high-performing people in them. Let’s examine each a little more closely.

Essential Experts

Essential experts possess crucial knowledge but don’t want to manage others. This role is common in technology, engineering, and life sciences companies, where domain expertise in narrow and arcane areas can be crucial to market success. But the role is becoming important in many other industries as well, such as creative arenas (for example, product design in retail) and communications.

Note that essential experts typically don’t want to manage others; they only want to manage themselves. That makes retaining them very different from retaining someone who wants to scale the corporate hierarchy by managing increasingly larger operations.

So how do you keep them? Competitive compensation is table stakes for these folks. (Some might deserve to make more than certain executives in your company.) After all, they can easily take their expertise elsewhere. But your work environment is also a chief concern. They expect to do work they consider meaningful and that aligns with their values.

As an example, look at Google and its investments in artificial intelligence. In 2014 the company shelled out $650 million to buy AI startup DeepMind Technologies and went to great lengths to keep that firm’s 50 AI scientists and engineers in place. For example, Google had to promise it wouldn’t use DeepMind technology for military or intelligence purposes. It also had to let DeepMind scientists continue publishing their research in scientific journals — knowledge Google might have regarded as proprietary and kept private.

Capability development is also very important to a company’s essential experts, especially gaining knowledge and applying it to meaningful projects. They are lifelong learners who often want to be regarded as leading lights in their fields. Helping them become recognized as thought leaders — by being published in prestigious publications, for instance, or speaking at notable conferences — can go a long way toward keeping them.

Customer Experience Creators

These employees influence whether visitors become customers, and whether those customers return. They may be salespeople whose customers need lots of handholding — think life insurance, for instance, or industrial machinery. Or they may be people who interact with customers after the sale. Think of customer reps who support the biggest investors at asset management companies like Fidelity and Putnam.

The two most important retention drivers to keep people in these roles are compensation and organizational reputation. Competitive compensation is a minimum requirement; they can often make more elsewhere.

Organizational reputation is also important because employees need to feel good about the products and services they sell or service. For example, Vail Resorts, a $1.9 billion company that operates multiple ski resorts, has grown to understand the employee retention value in reputation. About 80% of its more than 30,000 employees are seasonal hires, and many of them are customer experience creators — lift operators, ski instructors, lodge and restaurant workers, and so on. Mark Gasta, the company’s chief human resource officer from 2008 to 2016, said these workers were “essential to the organization’s success… [T]heir long tenure is important.” Ideally, seasonal workers will return, year after year.

Keeping key talent was essential for Vail Resorts’ return to prosperity following the 2009 recession, and one move that was instrumental in doing that was clarifying the company’s values. As a firm that strives to create great outdoor experiences for customers, it’s no surprise that protecting the environment became a core value — something that matters to employees at the front lines.

“It doesn’t matter how much you pay,” said Gasta, though he noted that Vail Resorts’ pay is competitive. “If you’re not in line with their personal aspirations, they’ll eventually leave. Employees want to know that they work for a company that does good, and then they want to know how they can contribute.” The company put sustainability front and center in external and internal communications. In 2017 it announced a bold initiative to end carbon emissions, reduce waste to landfills to zero, and eliminate adverse environmental impact by 2030.

When it comes to work environment, Vail Resorts introduced flexibility to give employees time off to pursue their passions. It offers ski breaks, for instance, and employee ski days. In fact, “having fun” is one of its six core values for workers.

Critical Contractors

Independent contractors have become ubiquitous. Some 20% to 30% of American and European Union workers are independent, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. About 30% of those 162 million people are free agents by choice, not necessity, according to McKinsey research. In fact, another study, by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that 94% of the net new employment in the U.S. from 2005 to 2015 came from freelance work.

All that to say, independent contractors are here to stay. Consider the example of Ecolab, a $13 billion global company that provides water, hygiene, and energy technologies and services that protect people and vital resources. About 6,000 of Ecolab’s 48,000 workers are contingent workers. Some of its most important contractors possess rare and deep expertise in key areas, such as sugar beets and how to refine them. “There are very few sugar beet experts in the world, and one of them works on a contingent basis for us,” says Laurie Marsh, Ecolab’s executive vice president of human resources. “He was retired and didn’t want to come back to working full-time. We’re glad he’s on call and on our team.”

To keep such critical contractors in the fold, Ecolab provides the “best set of materials to do the job,” Marsh said. “We spend a great deal of time ensuring that they have the latest technologies and the best research facilities.”

Compensation is also of utmost importance, as it is for other star employees, and capability development is too, specifically around personal brand. This doesn’t mean offering a career path inside your company; it means helping a critical contractor further develop their credibility in the marketplace.

An organization’s reputation is important to critical contractors. To put it simply, they want to work with winners. Companies with strong brands have a leg up in attracting critical contractors. Those with weak brands have a much harder time getting the best of the best, unless those critical contractors are up-and-comers and don’t yet have strong personal brands.

Keeping your company’s talented essential experts, customer experience creators, and critical contractors working for you and engaged in their work starts with acknowledging that senior leaders aren’t always the most valuable people in the company.

Many companies direct their retention strategies almost exclusively at top management and high potentials. But by ignoring other key roles — the roles that drive competitive advantage — you may be letting valuable talent slip through your fingers. Figure out which roles have the greatest impact on market performance — and staff them with stars.


Lynn Cowart is Vice President of Quality Delivery at Career Systems International, a consulting and training firm that helps companies retain and develop key talent.



Cile Johnson is Senior Vice President at Career Systems International, a consulting and training firm that helps companies retain and develop key talent.



Beverly Kaye is the Founder of Career Systems International and a bestselling author on career development and workplace performance. Her most recent book (with Lindy Williams and Lynn Cowart) is Up Is Not the Only Way: Rethinking Career Mobility.

  Wendy Tan   Jan 29, 2019   Career Development, Engagement   Comments Off on The 3 Essential Jobs That Most Retention Programs Ignore   Read More
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