By Randy Hain

I was speaking with a senior executive friend recently about the challenges of attracting, motivating and retaining talent in her company. She described at great length the generous benefits and perks offered by her organization to future and current employees and it felt a bit overwhelming to consider all you would receive if you joined or currently worked for her company. This conversation was similar to others I have had with various senior leaders and reminds me that the war for talent has been raging for years. It is understandable that companies are increasingly getting more creative and aggressive in trying to attract and keep good people, but I believe we may be overlooking the most important benefit and perk of all…we should be talking more about opportunity.

What I am about to share with you is a bit counter-cultural and will probably make some readers uncomfortable. I know there are exceptions, but it seems as if corporate America has been engaging in an unsustainable contest for several years now to outdo each other with ever more generous benefits and perks for future and current employees that is spiraling out of control. The current uncertain trajectory of the economy and increasing corporate layoffs will likely force companies to rein in benefits and perks somewhat, but the essential problem of how we think about attracting, motivating and retaining talent will remain.

What are the consequences? This way of thinking contributes to an entitlement culture that certainly exists beyond the workplace, where the more we give the more people expect…with no end in sight. This entitlement mentality can sometimes lead to a lack of appreciation from employees for what is being given to them or done for them. It can contribute to “You are lucky to have me.” instead of “I am lucky to be here.” thinking. I am suggesting that we have over-indexed on this so much that we may have forgotten the importance of simply discussing and selling opportunity. You will earn, learn, achieve, attain…if you work hard, perform well, make a commitment, etc. For example:

The opportunity to be compensated well for producing consistent results.

The opportunity to potentially earn stock with performance and tenure.

The opportunity to move up quickly based on attitude, hard work and performance.

The opportunity to be developedmentored and grown by their leader and the company.

The opportunity to createsupport or sell products/services that will make a positive difference in the world.

The opportunity to be part of something special and help build a world class organization.

Of course, today’s talent landscape may require us to offer competitive salaries, aggressive bonuses and attractive healthcare or PTO plans, but those are table stakes and follow the demands of the marketplace and the whims of the economy. If we better promote the idea of opportunities and what it will take to achieve those opportunities, we will likely attract a higher caliber candidate who is self-motivated, hard-working and driven to succeed…a candidate who is eager to learn and grow. This type of candidate will be grateful for the benefits and perks, but even more grateful for the clear opportunity to excel and prove themselves. Overall, this candidate will likely be more appreciative of the opportunities placed in front of them and more likely to be a long-term member of the team if the company honors its commitments.

What can be done?

I am reminded of my first three corporate jobs in the first 25 years of my career before I launched my executive coaching company in 2012. My first job out of college as a manager trainee with a national retailer promised me excellent training, fast career growth and a solid income opportunity if I worked hard and showed initiative. True to their word, I made the most of this opportunity and grew to a senior operational leadership role. My second job as a Director of Recruiting with a national restaurant chain began with this promise in the interview from my future boss: “This will be the toughest job you have ever had, but you will have the opportunity to learn more here about people, leadership and business than any job you will ever have and grow in ways you never thought possible.” This was the toughest job I ever had and it stretched me in often uncomfortable ways, but I am grateful for all that I learned and I left after four years as the Vice-President of People and an Officer of the company. My final corporate role was with a national executive search firm who hired me as a Partner. The opportunity they offered was quite different. I would have the opportunity to earn an uncapped income based on performance, work with well-respected servant leaders who led the firm and make a positive difference in the lives of our clients, candidates and the community. All of this was true (and more) when I left as a Partner and shareholder of this wonderful organization 13 years later to start my own coaching and leadership development company.

I look back over my career with great appreciation for all the opportunities I have been given and the chances to prove myself and achieve the career success I have been blessed to experience. Each of these opportunities represents an example to follow for leaders today. In each case, my future boss personally interviewed me, got to know me, laid out the clear opportunity with their company and offered me a chance to make the most of it.  Outside of a market competitive pay package, they offered me nothing else except the promise of achievable opportunity if I was committed, worked hard and produced results.

I wonder how seriously leaders take their critical role in the interview process today. I have witnessed an increased tendency for leaders to delegate this function exclusively to the HR and Talent organization with the hiring manager being only marginally involved with the interview process. I know there are exceptions, but I challenge leaders today to get more involved in bringing the right talent into your companies. Partner closely with your HR and Talent teams and make it clear you wish to be very involved in bringing on key hires. Make time for this vital function and let your future team members hear from your lips what they can expect from you and the company, clear details about opportunities to excel and what you expect from them.

Beyond the interview

Being more actively involved in the hiring process for key employees is only part of the equation. How will you continue to offer opportunities for growth and learning throughout a team member’s career? I have written in a previous post about the need for leaders to always asklisten and invest. Staying close to your people this way will help you identify what they want to achieve in their careers. This will help you identify appropriate challenges to help them grow which will in turn enhance your ability to help them stay motivated and resist the temptation to leave for greener pastures.

Leaders, I encourage you to clearly identify the exciting opportunities you and your company have available for future and current team members. Get more involved in personally communicating this to potential key hires during the recruiting and interview process…as well as the current team. Take a more active role in asking, listening and investing with your team. Give them more opportunities to excel and grow while placing less emphasis on the excessive benefits and perks that may be getting out of hand. Coach the people leaders who may report to you to bring this emphasis on better communicating the company’s opportunities to their teams as well and hold these leaders accountable for making this a priority.

Reflect a few months after you commit to this effort and assess the kinds of people this attracts to your team and the performance of the existing team.

You will likely be pleasantly surprised.

Good luck!