Bold Approaches for Successfully Retaining Every Innovator, Part 1 of 2

A retention toolkit for innovators

Corporate executives are beginning to learn the high value of innovators, which can be 5 to 300 times the value of an average employee. If a company doesn’t have enough innovators, a primary option is recruiting them. In a previous related article, I highlighted how you can successfully hire innovators. But that knowledge alone isn’t sufficient because you have to constantly work to retain these individuals who are constantly being targeted by recruiters from other firms. It should be obvious that if your firm successfully recruited them away from their existing employer, there is a high probability that another employer could do the same thing again and recruit them away from you.

Unfortunately, 95% of all retention approaches can best be described as marginally effective for the average employee, which makes them useless when you’re trying to retain an individual innovator who doesn’t have the same needs and expectations of the average employee. Therefore, if you want to keep the best innovators, provide your managers with a toolkit of bold, aggressive, and data-driven retention approaches that are tailored specifically to your innovators.

Many of the practices that work to retain innovators are also effective in increasing their productivity. In this two-part article I will highlight the most effective retention practices that are specifically targeted toward retaining innovators, game-changers, and top performers. After over 20 years of retention research and practice, I can also assure you that each one of these 30+ tools is effective.

6 Characteristics of Effective Retention Efforts for Innovators

You can’t use run-of-the-mill retention approaches on innovators and expect to have any chance of success. So when you’re designing your effort and selecting or developing innovation tools for innovators, make sure they meet the following characteristics.

  • A data-driven approach — 95% of retention efforts that I have reviewed are based on emotion and guesswork. Because of the value of innovators, you simply can’t afford failures, so a superior approach is to use data and marketing research techniques to identify what works and why specifically for innovators.
  • Prioritize innovators — because of the tremendous business impact of innovators, you need to retain each one of them. Prioritize your innovators or develop a separate retention program for the remainder of your employees.
  • Realize that innovators have different motivators — all the surveys you conduct that cover “all employees” will give you results that simply don’t apply to innovators. Doing the best work of your life, the freedom to innovate, and having a real impact on the world will not be among the motivators of Homer Simpson.
  • A personalized approach — blanket company-wide retention approaches seldom have much impact because the factors that cause employees to leave are unique to each individual. As a result, if you expect to retain innovators you need to develop a personalized “one-size-fits-one” retention plan.
  • Identify the innovators who have the highest risk of leaving — even though you have prioritized innovators, you should also identify and then focus your retention efforts on those who have the highest probability of leaving.
  • Use a toolkit approach — an innovator’s own manager knows the target employee best, and in addition, they suffer the most pain if the innovator leaves. As a result, the innovator’s manager should “own” the retention process. In direct contrast, programs owned by HR should be avoided, and instead, HR should develop retention toolkits which allow a manager to pick and choose the retention tools or “levers” that they find will have the greatest impact in their particular team.

Use the above characteristics to guide and assess your overall effort. Of course the key component of any successful retention effort is providing your managers the tools or “levers” that have proven to be effective in actually influencing innovators. The following section contains a variety of retention tools that have proven to be effective on innovators.

A Retention Toolkit for Innovators

These are aggressive and bold but proven retention tools. They are not designed for the average employee mostly because they are time-consuming. I have broken these retention tools into two distinct categories. Part I covers tools that individual managers can implement alone, and Part II covers the retention tools that require some outside help from HR and senior managers.

Part I — 17 bold and aggressive actions that individual managers can take to increase retention

The actions or tools in this section can generally be selected and implemented by the innovator’s direct manager.

  1. Develop an individual retention plan — because every innovator’s situation is unique, the innovator’s manager, working with HR’s retention experts, should put together a personalized retention plan for each individual innovator. The plan should first identify the potential issues that are likely to cause the innovator to consider leaving. Then the manager should put together a plan to implement the appropriate tools or “retention levers” that are likely to have highest impact on countering those issues. HR should distribute templates and sample plans to make it easier on managers.
  2. Ensure that they are doing the best work of their life — Generally, the No. 1 motivator of innovators is to be doing the best work of their life. The best way is to ensure that a manager sits down with the retention target once a year and works out exactly what those work tasks, interest areas, and projects would be. A follow-up quarterly meeting is required to ensure that they are continually doing what they consider to be their best work.
  3. Develop a “how-to-best-manage-me” profile — even a great manager needs to understand the most effective or optimal ways of communicating, motivating, empowering, engaging, rewarding, making decisions, and providing feedback to the innovator. The best way to do that is to work with the innovator to establish a profile the covers the most effective ways that this individual can be managed. This is best done when they start, but it should be updated at least every two years. An alternative approach is to ask them to assume that they were their own new manager and ask them, “How would you change your current job and how you are managed to make the job perfect?” Incidentally, often the best way to manage innovators is to treat them like “volunteers” and use influence rather than orders to direct them. Obviously their retention and how satisfied the innovator is with the way that they are managed should be key metrics and reward factors for their manager and their manager’s manager.
  4. Develop a “more of/less of” excitement list — in addition to having the right manager, being managed optimally, and doing the best work of their life, there are additional work factors that can either excite or frustrate the innovator. At least once a year, use an interview or survey to identify the positive excitement factors that they want more of. Some of the typical “more of” factors that innovators often want include better equipment, support help, opportunities to work with other innovators, and improved executive access. In addition to these excitement factors, you should also identify and try to minimize the “less-of” work-related elements that bore, frustrate, cause stress, or that they consider to be a waste of their time. Typical “less-of” factors include meetings, paperwork, back to back travel, an irritating team member, and administrative work. You should also develop a set of measures, benchmarks, and tickler reminders to ensure that the innovator never becomes overdue on any of these key excitement factors or that they are suffering under too many of the “less-of” factors. You can also maintain their level of excitement and productivity by periodically identifying any of their perceived barriers to innovation or productivity and working to eliminate them. Also ask them “what are the favorite parts of your job?” and make sure that they spend most of their time doing those favorite tasks as well as what they do best.
  5. Conduct pre-exit interviews covering “why do you stay/why would you leave?” — instead of waiting until an innovator considers another external offer, it pays to be proactive and to ask them in an interview or survey “why do you stay?” This “stay interview” should also identify “why would you leave” which would include the specific factors that frustrate them and the positive factors that could draw them away to another firm. By identifying what keeps this individual in the job and at the firm, you can reinforce the positives and eliminate the negatives that frustrate them the most. The first “stay interview” should be held when they start the position, but follow-up interviews should be held at least every two years.
  6. Maximize their opportunities to innovate, and their freedom — innovators get frustrated when they have reduced opportunities to innovate and take risks. That means that you must proactively provide them with continuous opportunities. You can also increase their freedom by providing them one day a week (i.e. 20 percent time) or one day a month to focus on their own pet projects. Because innovators are risk takers, they often also want permission to take bigger risks and to implement things before they are perfect. In addition, innovators desire more control over their assigned projects, including when they work, how they work, and where they work. In most cases, they also expect to work with only the best coworkers and not a single slacker, so give them input into their team. Because innovators often act “outside the box,” every attempt must be made to minimize the restrictions, controls, or constraints that can deeply frustrate innovators.
  7. Ask newly hired innovators … “What motivates you?” — if you want your innovator to be productive immediately, develop a survey to ask newly hired innovators during onboarding “what specific things have you found that increase your motivation?” At the same time you can also ask: “What challenges you? What are your learning/growth goals? What are your organizational exposure goals? Where would you like to be in two years? What frustrates you?” and “Why did you quit your last two jobs? The manager should then develop a plan to ensure that they reach their challenge, learning, or organizational exposure goals and that they encounter a minimum amount of frustration.
  8. Periodically ask them to stay — one of the most powerful no-cost tools for innovators is to periodically remind them how important they are and then to straightforwardly ask them to “please stay.” This simple approach works especially well among individuals who want to feel needed by their manager and teammates. As a supplement, explain to your innovators that “You do not have the right to remain silent” when you become frustrated. Their manager should at least attempt to get them to agree to “warn us” before you consider leaving, in order to give us sufficient time to at least try to rectify any issues.
  9. Show them the impact of their work — the primary motivating factors of most innovators are doing the best work of their life and having a visible impact in their field and on the world. The latter factor means that you should go out of your way to show each of your innovators individually the impact of their work. You can simply show them the “downstream impacts” and the importance of their work for the firm, their profession, and on the world in general, or you can actually expose them to and let them interact with your vendors and customers. You can help them recognize the importance of their work in their professional field by allowing them to write articles and present at professional meetings.
  10. Lengthen and customize new hire onboarding — because newly hired innovators are different, they may require a customized follow-up onboarding process created by their manager that more closely fits their unique needs. Because research by the Recruiting Roundtable unfortunately found that more than 50% of new hires regret their hiring decisions, and most new hires decide during the first two months whether they intend to stay, you may need to operate under the assumption that the recruiter or the hiring manager may have unintentionally overpromised or exaggerated in order to land this prized candidate. To combat any misconceptions or overpromises, it is often wise for the manager to extend the onboarding process for newly hired or transferred innovators for up to three months. Managers can use that extra time to identify issues and smooth out anything that might make the new hire rethink their decision to join your firm.

Some Additional Aggressive Approaches to Consider

If your organization is really aggressive and doesn’t want to lose a single innovator, here are some additional and extremely aggressive approaches you can try.

  • A dream job sheet — consider offering them a “dream job sheet” that, within limits, simply allows them to redesign their current job or to design their next one within the firm.
  • Offer a group retention bonus — which is a significant monetary incentive paid to everyone in the group if no one leaves until the project is successfully completed. You can alternatively offer them a “successful project completion bonus” or a written long-term contract that keeps them with your firm until the project is successfully completed.
  • Hire away the recruiter — identify the recruiter who is targeting them and hire them away.
  • Strengthen relationships — strengthen their friendships with coworkers and build support among family members. Together they can help to encourage them to stay or even alert you if they find that the innovator is considering leaving. Also educate other members of the innovator’s team on the important role that they can play in keeping a key employee and in identifying when and why an innovator is at risk of leaving.
  • Dial down options — you can give innovators the freedom to “dial down” (or dial up) aspects of their job including travel, responsibilities, and work hours if they require a change in their work/life balance equation. This is an approach that has worked effectively at Deloitte.
  • An opportunity to lead or earn more — many innovators simply don’t want to become leaders or managers, but if they want to try it, give them the option of becoming a leader. Many only seek the management role for the additional income, so be sure to provide alternative approaches (i.e. designating them as a research fellow or a senior scientist) that allow them to increase their income without burdening an innovator with management responsibilities.
  • Teach managers to recognize “career wounds” — my research indicates that merely being frustrated or even having a weak manager will not by itself automatically trigger an innovator to quit. The factor that normally triggers turnover is known as a “career wound,” which might include having a major project canceled, being turned down for a transfer/promotion, a sharp reduction in their performance appraisal scores, or a major budget cut.

Next week: Part II of this two-part series covers “17 bold and aggressive retention tools and actions for innovators that may require senior management or HR support.”


About the Author

DJS campus headshot

Dr. John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks Dr. Sullivan.

    1) Retention policies are directly counter to the best risks of internal/contract recruiters- the more/longer they stay, the less work there is for us to do.

    2) “Corporate executives are beginning to learn the high value of innovators, which can be 5 to 300 times the value of an average employee.” Based on what studies? What kind of employees? How are “innovator and “average” defined?

    3) “95% of all retention approaches can best be described as marginally effective for the average employee, which makes them useless when you’re trying to retain an individual innovator who doesn’t have the same needs and expectations of the average employee.” Again: Based on what studies? What kind of employees? How are “innovator and “average” defined?

    4) “I will highlight the most effective retention practices that are specifically targeted toward retaining innovators, game-changers, and top performers. After over 20 years of retention research and practice, I can also assure you that each one of these 30+ tools is effective.” Upon what basis can you assure us? Are these your opinions or are they based on data? If data, what are the sources of your data?

    5) How will management deal with the perception that this special treatment for “innovators” is actually based on performance and not on favoritism? How will they make sure that it IS based on performance and not favoritism? Will the criteria and evaluation be objective and transparent- a true meritocracy? Have you considered the unintended consequences of these measures on the team, department, company as a whole?

    6) Finally, the approaches that you suggest make a great deal of sense to me- however, ISTM you should apply them to EVERYONE you’re planning to keep around. IMHO, a company can and should do a lot better overall if it’s committed to encouraging /incentivizing the best from all its employees. and not just a selected few.



  • gregg dourgarian

    Agree with Keith.

    Here in Minnesota the Twins followed an exaggerated retention effort with Joe Mauer. Joe was retained alright but the act poisoned a great culture.

    As a young developer I felt the same way when the company I worked for went out of its way to retain a senior with a bad attitude. It was like, ok they won’t have money left for me and I won’t get to work on challenging assignments either. I left two months later.

  • Robert Dromgoole

    @Gregg, entry level developers are easier and less costly to replace. It’s okay if a few leave. Replace them. With people who buy into the mission, vision, values.

    @Keith Organizations must differentiate. Sure, prioritize, but you can’t treat everyone the same. Expect some will leave, but develop a plan to replace them. To Dr. Sullivan’s point, the ROI of innovation makes them worth it.

    Love this innovation series Dr. Sullivan, well done.

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Gregg: Thank you.

    @ Robert: Agreed, you can’t treat everyone equally, as far as compensation, rewards, etc. However, you should actively encourage and support everyone to innovate from the janitor and entry-level employee through the EVP. ISTM that if you need a small cadre of pampered, arrogant, “prima donnas” to thrive in your business, you’re in the wrong one. Why? If nothing else: what happens when (after all your efforts) some of the key “prima donnas” DO leave, or circumstances change so that the former “prima donnas” are no longer who’re needed? This goes to my concept of “Robust Hiring”; which is to work to make sure (through careful up-front planning) that due to the way you’re organized and the field you’re in, you don’t NEED a team of superstars to come out ahead… Finally if a company is really serious about retaining certain non-XO people, it can give them customized “multi-year, guaranteed raise/bonus, no-layoff without cause” employment contracts. Funny how nobody except me seems to mention these as decent retention tools…If they won’t/can’t do this, they can always try to make sure they create/maintain an open, inclusive work culture, treat EVERYONE with the same respect and consideration as you treat the CEO, and trust in human nature.


    Keith Halperin

  • Robert Dromgoole

    @Keith, you should write about your retention ideas on ERE.

    I think an organization does need some superstars to transcend. From academia to sports to many companies there are a list of super stars. Some may be arrogant, but my bet is most are not. My bet is companies would love everyone to innovate, but the reality is from my experience that not everyone does. Only a few do. That’s not to say others don’t do great work.

    But if you must retain the few, Dr. Sullivan’s ideas make sense to me. I don’t think he’s saying these are the only plans, if you have others, great.

    You should write a counter-article that challenges the myths of the innovators …. would be a great debate at a future ERE. Could be fun, and we all learn something.

  • gregg dourgarian

    I’d love to read more about your concept of ‘robust hiring’ Keith. For me the funnest and most profitable part of running a business is building people up. All people.

  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Gregg. You’ve given me a new topic to write about…


  • Michael Glenn

    Dr. John stop using the word Innovator. It’s being overused. It reminds of the word “go-getter”. You remember that one don’t you. It was quite common in the 80’s in all the job classifieds.

    Also, your articles have become somewhat boring. In the past you drummed up some more controversial articles like The End of Sourcing, or The Silliness of Measuring Cost per Hire.

    Please, write something that is going to get recruiters to read your stuff all the way to the end.

  • Keith Halperin

    @ Michael:
    1) If we authors here on ERE didn’t use lots of buzz words, catch phrases, and truisms, we’d have to actually discuss real, meaningful recruiting issues like dealing with institutioanalized dysfunction and high-level managerial greed, arrogance, fear, and incompetence (GAFI) and who’d want to seriously deal with those topics?

    2) Dr. Sullivan’s articles may be many things, but they are not boring. I find them very stimulating.

    3) Finally, IMHO it is a great presumption that we recruiters are able to read at all, let alone an entire article.



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