HR & Employment

The ‘Autonomy Attraction’: Retaining Top-Talent as Your Company Grows

Richard Friend | 12 April 2022 | 2 years ago

Staff retention gets harder as companies grow. Much harder. That’s especially true of talented ‘Rock Stars’ in technology companies. Some of your top performers joined before you were successful – despite the risks, frailties and uncertainty – but just as things really start to happen, they leave. Why is that?

Chances are they’re pulled into the gravitational orbit of a start-up or a unicorn (a privately held company with a value of over £1 billion).

Start-ups have to attract the best talent. They need the invention and magic-dust to get them up and running. They go all-in and probably pay more than they can afford, gambling on the abilities of those A-Players to make the risk pay-off. Unicorns are at the other end of the spectrum. Able to pay whatever is necessary to attract and retain top talent. The majority of hard-working businesses simply cannot compete. The lure of the brand, coupled with eye-watering incentives, becomes irresistible. This is exacerbated by the current febrile environment and bidding wars for talent.

The result is that successful, steadily growing companies are squeezed from both ends of the corporate spectrum. As they reach a certain size, the trickle of experienced engineers exiting begins. Soon, it turns into a steady flow. Before you know it, your leadership is spending as much time on recruitment as it is on product and services!

Are you doomed to be forever replacing your best people?

You’ve invested in their training, support, equipment and personal development. You reward them as much as you can afford but it’s not always enough. A common reality is that as companies grow, A-Players lose a certain level of autonomy. Their early days were likely spent stretching their entrepreneurial muscles as they designed, developed and launched products and features. Such cultures, whether intentional or not, help foster the creation and launch of truly great products.

However, as those products gain traction and mature, innovation begins the inevitable battle against the need for efficiency. Things get complicated.

Your top talent can become focused on incremental gains, while being parachuted in to help put out fires. This will be inevitable to some degree, the magic is ensuring that what motivates, what leads to innovation, is not stifled in the process.

Start-ups and unicorns remind A-Team players of what they used to have, the unpredictability of each day, the rushes of adrenaline and an environment in which they thrive. It’s your job to remind them every day that you still offer that, plus the benefits of scale. In my experience, people become attached to the great products they create, there is no reason that improving and helping those products flourish can’t be just as, if not more, rewarding than their initial creation.

Empowering innovative and autonomous teams is a must in even the most regulated of sectors. It is vital to create and maintain an environment where it is okay to experiment and fail. Never sacrifice such an ethos at the altar of ruthless efficiency. It is experimentation that excites and ignites the inquisitive mind, and it is only through experimentation that you discover what actually works and what can accelerate your growth. Be it product attributes, technology platforms or launching into new sectors, there will be important failures and that’s okay.

As a growing business your big advantage over “corporates” is your speed and agility to react to events and opportunities. You do not have layers of decision-making bureaucracy that prevents larger firms from being as nimble. These are the perfect conditions to embrace autonomy.

Create autonomous, empowered teams; operating within a decision-making framework that provides clarity of responsibility, accountability and communication. State the outcome you need, but instead of specifying precisely the way to reach it, give them freedom over how they do the job.

Adopt this approach and you immediately benefit from the ‘autonomy attraction’. The freedom people have to do great work is more valuable, and harder to match, than a pay raise. The result will be long-serving, more engaged and more effective team members.

That’s good for the individuals themselves and good for your business. Win-win!

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