Most leading organizations invest thousands of dollars in employee engagement surveys and 360 evaluations to measure the pulse of their employee base and provide meaningful feedback to their leaders.  In addition they sponsor leadership development initiatives aimed at developing, motivating and retaining top performers.  Vantage Leadership Consulting is a strong supporter of these efforts and have partnered with our client organizations in many of these programs. However, an overlooked tool that is far less expensive and labor intensive, and potentially more impactful, is a candid conversation between a leader and his/her boss that conveys the following message.

“I and senior leadership value your contributions, and we believe you will continue to be a difference maker within this organization. We hope you stay and we will support you to continue to be successful”.

This   conversation does not promise life employment, a promotion or a path to the top of the organization. However, it is an intentional and personal effort on the part of a manager to convey that a leader’s skills and contributions are recognized, appreciated and valued.

I was prompted to write on this topic after hearing from several highly regarded leaders, whom I coach, that were thinking about exploring other career options. Despite the fact that these individuals were receiving coaching because they were considered “High Potential”, they were uncertain of their future opportunities within their organization. Why the disconnect?

After exploring and learning more, the common theme that explained these perplexing circumstances was a lack of communication between the leader and his/her boss. In one instance a leader was not promoted to one of the most senior roles in the organization because of a need for a different set of skills to compete in the ever competitive marketplace. In another case an individual was informed that a thought leader was being brought in above her to fill a gap in the organization, again in light of changing business demands. I could go on but I will cut to the chase.

In each situation  these events were interpreted as major career setbacks, causing  the individuals to question if they still had a bright future with their employer. In fact all of them did, and their employers were dismayed to learn that they were considering leaving. A simple, timely and thoughtful conversation could have made a huge difference in how these highly regarded leaders interpreted the changes and how they felt about their career with the company.

Understandably, being passed over for a promotion or new opportunity is disappointing, particularly for aspiring and ambitious people. However, this is likely to occur to even the best and the brightest at some point. Many people assume that high performing leaders know how they are perceived and thus their need for affirmation is minimized.  However, dating back to Maslow, we know that even the most successful people have high requirements for affirmation and self determination.

The need for these conversations is not unique to high potential leaders and in fact, one can make the case that it is equally important with young professionals who are just embarking on their careers.  Experts on generational differences and retaining young talent remind us that today’s young leaders are looking for continuous growth and development. While we presume that this technology savvy generation does not value more face to face communication with their managers, the research suggests otherwise. (Marsha Kaye, Ensuring Your Talent Stays: Talk to them)

We know that the need for communication is critical in the face of ongoing and relentless change, reorganization and ambiguity in the business environment. Town Hall meetings, webinars, and blogs are all valuable modes to stay connected and share information, particularly with remote employee bases. However, leaders need to seize the opportunity to personally communicate (this includes asking questions) with their leaders about their careers, aspirations and opportunities. Ultimately these connections may be far more powerful in engaging, retaining and inspiring people.