AT10. Retaining Talent and Inspiring Potential

The success of your organization derives largely from your best performers. These individuals will quickly become identifiable icons simply because they are active and respected. They will drive forward initiatives, and do more than is expected of them. It’s vital that you make it as easy as possible for these members to stay and continue being productive. Your focus should skew more toward your best performing rather than your weakest members. You may be wondering why I advocate this approach. After all, your top talent should be trusted to do their jobs, right? Well, to a certain extent, that’s correct. You won’t need to hover over these members to get quality work out of them. But, if you focus solely on training your weakest members, you’ll find only modest gains for your efforts at best. At worst, your top performers will feel isolated and undervalued and may decide to find greener pastures at other organizations. In order to retain these talented individuals and inspire further dedication within all your members, you should focus on the following three steps:
  1. Invest in your members.
  2. Demonstrate appreciation.
  3. Don’t erode trust with gimmicks.
First, you must invest in your members. Members may have logical reasons for wanting to join your organization, but it’s their emotional fulfillment that keeps them dedicated and inspired. By understanding what a person wants when they seek out an organization, you can create a place that both fulfills their logical reasons for joining, and their underlying emotional needs. Let’s discuss a little bit about what people generally want from a collegiate or high school organization based on the years that they’re involved.
  • Freshman tend to be nervous and unsure of themselves. They want to feel supported and part of a family.
  • These members will also be eager, but inexperienced. Any initiatives they take part in should be supervised by a more senior member.
  • Have both professional and social events. Many of their friends will be on the team since that’s where they spend their free time so build events that bring people together.
  • They’ll also be concerned about school so create either mentorship programs or forums for them to ask questions regarding life, internships, and studying.
  • Give these members some increased responsibility. They will want to feel like they can help the freshmen, but will likely still be nervous about their position in the organization.
  • Allow these members to coach the freshman and also give them some insights regarding what it’s like to lead the organization.
  • During this point in life, whether in high school or college, these members will be interested in building up their resume, getting awards, and leading the organization. Give them opportunities to succeed and be visible.
  • This is where these members will want to leave their mark and they will be the most motivated to see their efforts be successful. Give them an opportunity to take on large challenges or big events that will be beneficial to your organization.
  • Juniors will also be either applying to school or seeking out prestigious internships. Provide guidance for whatever is relevant. Show them that your team cares about not only what they can do for the team, but also what the team can do for their future.
  • Seniors are likely interested in the legacy that they will leave behind. Focus on this and try to create initiatives that celebrate their accomplishments while allowing them to contribute back. These are your most knowledgeable and confident members and should be utilized frequently. Tell them that their effort will help them build out their legacy.
Now that you have a sense of the mindset of each member, let’s discuss the specifics of investing in your members. Investing is about sacrificing today so that you may gain more tomorrow. Especially in the lens of running an organization, the importance of investing in your people cannot be understated. The majority of the value that people will provide to your organization will come from a minority of participants. After all, a top performer for your organization inspires others to perform better. Therefore, if you can identify a top performer and invest in them, then they will allow your organization to thrive in ways that would not otherwise be possible.
             Investments can be resource or time based. On the organizational side, it means building up a cache of resources and tools that your team members can learn from to becomes superior members. These can include such items as books, computer programs, funds to send members to developmental seminars, creating best practices documents and the like. By having such materials available and ensuring that your members use them, you can create a passive database of thought leadership that can build the strengths of your members.
             The second kind of investing is a bit more active. This involves investing time and energy in live training. This can manifest by working with members individually on developing their skills through coaching, lectures, or bringing in subject matter experts. If you’re a good coach, you’ll create members who are excellent at what they do. And, if you learn how to be good at teaching people how to coach, then your members will be more successful when they turn into coaches.
             The third kind of investing is a bit off the beaten path. This more advanced and is not strictly necessary. But, the best student leaders invest in their teammates in ways that do not benefit the organization itself. For instance, set up opportunities for people to meet with upper classmen who have taken and excelled at introductory level classes, help people with their application to jobs, create a well-rounded organization that invests in the person as a whole. Not only will your members be grateful, but they will eventually begin to see your organization as essential to their personhood instead of an accessory. Integrate into a person’s life, and they can’t help but give back.
Remember the main concept of investing! You must sacrifice value today so that you can gain more value tomorrow. To that end, you may want to revisit your budget allocations. Even if you have a tight budget, think about what sacrifices may be necessary to grow your people for the future. As a leader, you cannot afford to only consider the short term. An organization that does not invest in its people cannot grow. Don’t dissolve necessary functions, but be lean in all other areas. Keep in mind as well, that the initial investment will always be the largest. Getting an organization off the ground will require significantly more investment of time, energy, and resources than keeping operations going. So, if you’re starting an organization from scratch, remember that you may not see results right away. You’re going to have to invest a lot of energy into a venture that in all cases might fail. But invest anyway. Better to have failed at a great venture than to have done nothing at all. At the very least, you’ll come away with a story.
             Now that you understand what investing looks like, let’s discuss allocation of resources. No matter how intelligent or capable you are, there are only so many hours in a day and only so many dollars in your budget. Your individual and organizational resources are limited, so you need to understand how to best allocate your energy to maximize the performance of your team. An individual high performing member will provide more value than a cadre of low performing members. Therefore, your energy and resources should go towards identifying and building upon your best talent. This may require more of a scattershot approach at the beginning, but once your top talent begins to differentiate, make the effort to shift resources in their direction. You want to diversify your investment so you aren’t reliant on too few people, but if given the choice, invest in a few strong members as opposed to allocating resources to weak members who aren’t interested in improving.
             On the other hand, identifying your vampire members is also vital. These are people who take from your organization without giving back in any meaningful way. Understand that no matter how much value or energy you devote to these members, you’re going to see marginal improvement at best. Especially if your resources are limited, cut your losses and divert resources to the people who are creating a positive change in your organization.
             The nuance here is that there will always be members who are on the fence. People who have potential but may not always show it. Here’s my criteria. If a person is showing active effort, then invest. They will appreciate your faith and will eventually reward it. The distinction you need to make is between effort and words. Anyone can promise to be a great member, but only those who try will make it. Between a member who looks strong on paper but doesn’t try, versus someone who doesn’t look as strong on paper, but gives it their all, I will invest in the latter every time.
The best way to differentiate between your best and worst performing members, is to give a member an initiative to run. Essentially, this is a challenge for an individual to prove their worth. Understand your people and what they’re capable of. You want to create an initiative that’s difficult enough for it to be challenging, but not so difficult as to be daunting. There will be two forums for members to prove themselves. There will be the normal day to day operations that members are aware of and can participate in. The second way is to create specific opportunities for people to demonstrate their competence. These challenges can be offered broadly to any member willing to take up the mantle, or it can be a tailored initiative for a promising member who you want to see succeed. This serves two purposes. The first purpose is allowing your members to create new value for your organization. The second purpose will be to help your members to build their own skillsets so they become stronger team players. Especially if you’re scoping out a member, monitor their progress closely. Identify their strengths and weaknesses, and tailor your further investment to build on their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.
CS1: If you invest in your members, they will invest in you. I put a lot of time, energy, and thought into running the Speech & Debate Team. I made many mistakes, and I’ve had a lot of successes. I believed in my teammates, I gave them everything I had. Over my tenure at the Speech & Debate team, I invested over $10,000 of my own money to hold events, cover costs, and help students who otherwise could not afford to attend tournaments. I’ve spent countless hours editing speeches, coaching, and listening to members about school, the team, and life. Had I not run this organization, I would have had a higher GPA, more sleep, and significantly less stress. Yet, I do not regret a moment of it. In fact, I loved every moment, even the terrible ones. I gave my heart and soul to this team, and I made each member a promise: my door would be always open, no matter what time, no matter how busy I was. I invested in my members because when someone joins an organization I run, I see it as a pact. They sign up to be a part of my vision, and they trust me to deliver. It is my responsibility to deliver in spades. So this might beg the question, what did I get in return for all my investment? Well, I’ll give you some examples and let you decide:
  1. The morning of our first sponsored tournament, a new member to the team, suffered significant burns on her arm from scalding water that her roommate had accidentally spilled that morning. She showed up anyway and insisted that she help set up the tournament. Of course, I insisted that she go to the hospital, but she was adamant. After she made sure that everything was set up properly, she sought medical treatment.
  2. During one of her competition years, our head judge suffered from a persistent cold that was floating around campus. She was incredibly sick, and could not speak above a whisper. But, she flatly stated that she would attend the upcoming tournament if she had to mouth her speech through all the rounds. That tournament was later canceled due to snow, but even the day before, she had packed and was ready to go.
  3. It was the week before a tournament, and one of our extemp competitors stayed up most of the night to research recent articles for his fellow teammates. Even though he had multiple upcoming midterm exams, he wanted to ensure that the team had its best chance to win the upcoming event. We would later go on to win that tournament. It was the first tournament we ever won. We would later go on to win many more, but I will always remember that first one.
At the end of the day, you may not be willing to invest as much time, energy, and resources into your team. On the other hand, perhaps you’d be willing to invest even more than I invested. However, understand that the more you invest, the greater return you will receive. These returns will benefit both you and your members.
The second concept to keep in mind is that you want to admit your mistakes and demonstrate appreciation. You’re going to make mistakes. Since mistakes are inevitable, be okay with making them and realize that it’s just part of the journey. The process of getting better requires practice to understand what works well and what doesn’t work. That being said, there will be times when you cross the line or make a serious mistake. The best course of action, generally, is to come clean and apologize to your teammates. This will show everyone that you recognize that you’ve done something wrong and that you’re trying to be better in the future. Especially if the mistake is large, someone is going to notice it eventually. By admitting your mistakes you’ll show a human side which can be endearing. By keeping yourself honest with you team members, you’ll build an increased level of trust and you’ll be able to move on from your failure gracefully and quickly.
             Next, learn to demonstrate appreciation. I’m going to make the leap and assume that you’re not a corporate employer. Therefore, you can’t show your appreciation for work like most employers do, which is through monetary rewards. You need to find a way to express appreciation without breaking the bank. The easiest way to do this is say thank you. Whenever people perform admirably or sacrifice for your organization, a word or gesture of appreciation is imperative. You don’t want to overdo it and devalue your appreciation currency, but be generous with appreciation when it’s due. Especially as people grow into your organization and begin to do things because they’re intrinsically motivated by the friendships that they’ve made and the legacy that they’re trying to implement, they want to be acknowledged for the work they’ve put in and the dedication they feel. Feel free to be creative with your appreciation as well. Could you give them a meaningful gift? Could you hold an impactful event? Those gestures tend to stick around and inspire long after the thanks has been given.
Questions to Consider
  • When is an appropriate time to demonstrate appreciation?
  • If you have more context as to why you need to pursue a controversial policy, do you want to risk eroding trust by not revealing your motives or do you want to maintain secrecy to ensure a successful implementation?
  • Are you investing too much into members who aren’t providing a return on your investment?

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