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Your Best Offence is a Good Defence – The Ampersand May 2022

May 2, 2022

By: Shannon Leo 


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When it Comes to Your People, Your Best Offence is a Good Defence


Why do people leave their jobs? And what can you do to keep them?


I spent over a decade hiring amazing people. I then did everything I could to keep those amazing people happy and staying put, which worked to varying degrees and depended on a lot of factors inside and outside of my organizations. In a strange twist, at about exactly the same time as I chose to leave my long-time role as an in-house Chief Talent Officer to pursue this new path as an outside consultant and recruiter, it has become harder than ever to keep people happy and productive in their jobs! Good timing for me as I can now serve a multitude of clients, and not just one (even though my old employer happens to be one of the best), and hopefully impart on them many of the lessons learned during my 20-year career in the people business.


The “great resignation” and post-COVID pressures are upon us, and people are leaving their jobs en masse. A lot of ink has already been spilled on the “great resignation” so I’m going to focus instead on sharing the top three reasons I heard for why people left during my time doing countless exit interviews and what I hear from my fellow talent professionals every day. Adam, Jill, and I have been working hard on a “your best offence is a good defence” strategy for employers to hang onto their talent, which we will continue to introduce over the coming months, starting with this article. I will also sprinkle in observations from formal psychotherapy and coach training to add some additional insight.


The first concept we are excited about is investing in stay interviews to gauge how satisfied your top performers are while they’re still your top performers and what your organization can do to keep them, instead of waiting for their exit interviews by which time it’s too late. It can be difficult to communicate constructive feedback directly to superiors – impossible in some organizations – and so we offer support as impartial third parties to gather information and provide input to leaders in a safe, pre-emptive, and proactive way. Have you ever felt blindsided when someone leaves your organization, wondering why they didn’t just speak up and say something sooner? These interviews are designed to get that information sooner. Just as an employee should never feel blind-sided by a bad performance review, so too should an employer never be taken aback by a departing star.


Here is some of what usually comes out, after the horse has left the barn – the top three areas leaders need to focus on:


Feeling Disconnected


The number one thing I heard that made people stay longer at organizations was the depth of real relationships. On the flip side, if people didn’t feel connection and an investment from people around them, they were vulnerable to being swayed to another opportunity. One up-and-coming professional that I spoke with recently explained that her loyalty is directly connected to the way people support each other in her group, citing the personal connection she feels to her supervisor – who they rallied around when she had a serious loss – and the opportunities that people on the team give her to stretch and grow.


Making these kinds of personal connections is directly linked to the concept of empathy. In a recent Forbes article, the research showed that empathy is the single most important leadership trait and, specifically, that the majority of women and women of colour said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies if they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued by their companies. The article also stresses that with empathy, there needs to be alignment about what is said and done. For example, it is one thing to say that a colleague’s vacation and personal time will be respected, and it is another thing to follow through with planning for that colleague’s time away and leaving them alone while they are gone.


In the vein of retaining more diverse people, another Forbes article highlights empathy as a strong tool to unlocking inclusion initiatives. I have seen this personally in my journey to being a better ally: showing empathy toward others and vulnerability that you are learning is the first step to developing real relationships with team members who have different lived experiences and backgrounds. Those genuine connections then set the stage for people to talk about the issues and barriers to success that they experience so change can then happen at a systemic level.


I have heard some leaders bemoan the time it takes to foster deep relationships, but positive psychologists have shown that we might be thinking about that investment in the wrong way. For example, rather than thinking of an hour at the gym as an hour during which you could be doing something else, think of it as an investment in your longer-term health. The same could be said about investing in workplace relationships. In Shawn Anchor’s TedTalk, he explains that many of us believe that if we work hard, we will be successful, and then we will be happy. The opposite is actually true, with research showing that if we focus more on increasing our connections and our positive mindset, productivity will improve dramatically. Anchor suggests some relatively easy ideas for improving positivity and connection, including acknowledging, and thanking people for their contributions more, spending even a short amount of time daily meditating and clearing away a negative mindset, and noticing what is going right (instead of wrong) and focusing on what we are grateful for. In other words, time spent fostering connection and positivity every day is an investment in a more productive team in the longer-term.


The defensive strategy that employers can take away from this first point, is to consciously make time for people, be curious about them, to show up for them and to acknowledge them and show them they are valued through words and actions. Not only will those leaders learn a thing or two about the people on their teams, but they’ll improve retention and culture along the way.


Wanting More Balance and Control


The second most common reason people cited leaving was wanting more balance and control over their time. This one is difficult to address in professional services environments. I have seen that if more work is done under point one above – in the investing in relationships category – that can be a powerful way to balance the high demands of the job.


Research shows that even relatively small tweaks to work expectations can improve retention and engagement. In one study researchers showed that introducing Predictable Time Off (“PTO”) in a management consulting firm, which could include encouraging an evening disconnected from work, or agreed upon email blackout times, or uninterrupted blocks of working time for greater focus, raised job satisfaction significantly (72% of people involved with the PTO study saying they were satisfied with their job, versus 49% who were not doing PTO). Additionally, 58% of people that had PTO said they were likely to stay at the firm versus 40% who were not involved with PTO. An interesting point in this study was that team members were encouraged to share their PTO goals for the week and were supported by their teammates and leaders, which legitimized the discussion around personal time and made it a collective goal to ensure everyone on the team had some personal time.


In a recent post from my favourite authority on workplace culture, Adam Grant, he advocated for every workplace to have at least one day a week with no meetings and cited higher productivity, satisfaction, and communication and with lower stress in the companies that tested meeting-free days.


I have seen a version of this in action: when more senior team members model prioritizing personal time for family, community, health and wellness, it creates safety around these behaviours. I can think of many examples of teams that function better than others, linked to the leaders modeling the importance of taking breaks from work (while still being incredibly productive).


Think of this as putting on the oxygen mask first so they can better help others. It is commonly accepted in care practices, like with psychotherapists and psychologists, that taking care of oneself is an important part of the practice and of doing business. A certain amount of time for exercise, rest, and connecting is expected so that the practitioners are at their best to service others.


The defensive play for this point is to normalize how important time off-line is, even if it’s a small amount, for everyone. Organizations should also be vocally supportive about their flexible hour programs, work from home programs, sabbaticals, and other arrangements that can be made for people to work differently. The leaders fall under this too – they need breaks to recharge especially after the stress of managing through the COVID years. This may require a bit of a shift in perspective, with priority on longer term, sustainable, productivity and profit versus short term productivity.


Wanting More Insight into the Business and Vision


A third, and perhaps easier to remedy, reason that people left professional services was an attraction to an in-house position with a clearer sightline into business and strategy. I know countless law firm associates that left private practice to learn more about business. Managing Partners often lament to us that they are mere talent incubators for their clients; that once their young up-and-comers are trained up, they lose them to a client and they are left scratching their head as to why. Upon reflection, this strikes me as a lost opportunity, since law firms are such interesting, complex, and very successful businesses. Educational and mentoring sessions that share the behind-the-scenes details of partner life, including compensation, business development opportunities, and leadership trajectory were always very well-received. The challenges are evident to junior people, but the upside and benefits are not always so clear.


Beyond teaching the nuts and bolts of the business, research shows that time spent educating employees about the broader vision for the organization, is time well spent. In one study, the second highest trait that working people are looking for in a leader, after honesty, is that they be forward looking. People want a shared sense of purpose and vision, and they want to feel connected to a larger cause. The researchers suggested that the way to engage employees in vision is to connect with them, listen to them, and help them connect the larger vision to their own goals and aspirations.


The defensive play for this point is to build in more transparency into how an organization is run, and more information about each person’s path forward. In addition, consistently communicating a well-defined vision for an organization can help engage people. Remember, most of the people employed in your organization under the age of 40 have grown up in a world where information is everywhere. A lack of transparency or line of sight on the inner workings of their organization is antithetical to everything they know.




Remedying these issues takes consistent time and effort, which many leaders are in short supply of these days. Organizations may need to invest in more resources to properly implement initiatives – since it is very difficult to add these engagement tasks to people’s already very full plates and expect the consistent effort that they require.


I have been so excited to join Pekarsky & Co. last month to help find incredible talent for the organizations that we work with and to also contribute to the leadership advisory work that Jill Birch has been expertly leading. What attracted me to the firm is that we don’t merely transact, tactically moving so many checkers pieces around the board. Rather, we provide true consultative support in truly strategic manner that can address these issues and directly improve retention and morale. For example, we have coaching programs for leaders to create and articulate their visions, as well as supporting them with the tremendous pressure of leading organizations over the last couple of years; we conduct leadership assessments to help people identify blindspots in managing others; we engage in succession planning to identify and support up-and-coming talent; and much more.


In addition to helping find incredible people for our clients to hire, we get a lot of enjoyment helping our clients go on the defensive to hang onto their talent and to make their workplaces thrive. While this may seem counter to the objectives of a recruitment firm, in reality the better retention an organization experiences is directly correlated to the quality of candidate that organization can attract. Keeping your people, rather than losing them, actually makes our job easier and considerably more satisfying.


It has been a treat to leave the exit interviews behind and I sincerely hope to help more clients do the same!


All the best,



Shannon Leo is a Client Partner in the Toronto office of Pekarsky & Co.