Targeting Your Retention Strategy

CHROs should tailor retention strategies to fit the needs of employees who have the biggest impact on organizational success.
By: | December 11, 2017 • 9 min read
targeting retention

The employee retention practices at Google Inc. are a harbinger for where the war for talent is going next. Just three years ago, the $90 billion search engine leader paid $650 million to acquire a 2-year-old London company called DeepMind Technologies, which employed about 50 artificial-intelligence scientists.

Google had to promise DeepMind several things to do the deal. One was that none of DeepMind’s technology would be used for military or intelligence purposes. Another was that its scientists could continue publishing their research in scientific journals.

“The really top tier of [AI] people can work anywhere they want — in finance, [Silicon] Valley or New York,” said DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman at TechCrunch’s December 2016 London Disrupt conference. “They are not just motivated by compensation or working on hard problems. They are also motivated by working with peers and by problems that really matter. People want to make a difference in the world. When we sold the company, it was important to continue the work and the research that we do.”


Like Google, many companies are going to great lengths — and great expense — to acquire and retain talent whom they believe will have the most significant impact on their businesses. From our vast collective experience in working with chief HR officers and other senior executives on talent issues, we believe that retaining such talent will require companies to excel at two tasks: Determining which jobs are the most important to organizational performance; and tailoring their retention strategies to the distinct needs of people in those roles.

Identifying the Roles

We are by no means the first to proclaim the need for CHROs and their C-suite peers to determine which jobs are far more critical to a company’s success than other jobs. This thinking dates back to at least the last decade. In 2009, professors Brian Becker, Mark Huselid and Richard Beatty published a book titled The Differentiated Workforce: Translating Talent into Strategic Impact that urged companies to identify their “strategic positions.” By this, they meant the roles that provided an organization with unique competitive advantages. For example, the authors said that in pharma, those strategic positions included research and development scientists developing new drugs, and in retailers that compete on service, store personnel who provide personalized shopping for loyal customers.

Since then, management consultancies such as Bain & Co. and McKinsey & Co. have made similar arguments. In their 2017 book titled Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, Bain’s Michael Mankins and Eric Garton referred to an organization’s most essential roles as “difference makers.” They estimated the number of such roles in a big company’s top three management levels to be from 100 to 150. In their research, they found the best-performing companies had as many as 95 percent of their best people in “difference-making” positions, while market laggards spread their stars out in both critical and non-critical roles. It’s a bad practice the Bain consultants termed “unintentional egalitarianism.”

From our experience with hundreds of companies, we have seen six types of roles that have been most essential to organizational success. Think of them as “leverage roles.” That doesn’t mean these are the only vital positions in any organization, but these are the ones we’ve seen most frequently:

* Indispensable C-suiters — These are leadership roles at highly important business units, and business functions that are elemental to success. The chief marketing officer role at consumer products companies such as Coca-Cola or the head of supply chain at retailers such as Walmart are good examples. So is the chief design officer job at companies such as Apple or fashion retailer Tapestry (formerly Coach).

* Essential experts — These are roles in R&D, technology and other areas that are vital to a firm’s strategic direction, product innovation and process effectiveness. Individuals in these jobs typically don’t have management responsibilities; they have only to manage themselves.

* Captains in the field — Middle-management positions that are critical to executing a firm’s strategy. For example, in sales-driven companies such as pharmaceutical firms, they can be field sales force managers in key economic regions.

* Customer-experience creators — Sales, customer-contact-center and/or field-service jobs that are instrumental to acquiring customers and keeping them loyal. In these roles, employees turn interactions into moments that determine whether a prospect becomes a customer, and remains a customer.