Why Attraction is Worth More Than Retention

The phrase “attraction and retention” is so entrenched in business-talk that a Google search with quotes around the terms turns up 306,000 hits.

That’s a lot. But it’s dwarfed by the active-voiced “attract and retain,” with 2.07 million hits.

If memory serves, the phrase comes out of the “war for talent,” initiated in 1997 by McKinsey.

Was that war ever won? Apparently not. In 2007, Bob Sutton was announcing “The War for Talent is Back.

In fact, as of just a few months ago, McKinsey was announcing The Return of the War for Talent  (“It’s Baack!”).

But, as of two weeks ago, according to search firm Morgan McKinley, the War for Talent is Over.

The War for Talent has had more comings and goings than Cher has had farewell tours. So it goes with business concepts that mean whatever you want them to mean.

(For a really wonderful read on the abuse of “war for talent,” read Malcolm Gladwell’s article The Talent Myth.)

But I digress. The WFT is fought on two fronts—finding talent, and keeping it. Despite the eerie parallels with roach motels, the language "attract and retain" has stuck.

“Attract” has taken a back seat to "retain," and it’s not hard to see why. Consider the well-established economics of customer loyalty. Employees form relationships and gain hard-to-replace skills, referred to in distinctly non-human terms as “relationship capital.”

Yet, just as the best defense may be a great offense, the best retention strategy may be a great attraction strategy.

For one thing “retention” often lives down to the very behavioral language used to describe it. Think handcuffs, golden or otherwise; do-not-compete clauses; hands-off clauses in search firm contracts. More benignly, flex time and use it or lose it vacations.

But more importantly, think what a really fabulous, unbelievable attraction proposition does for retention. Suppose you had an extraordinary new-hire offer. Tons of money, social good, ambience, benefits, advancement, work-life balance, cachet. Maybe like Google a couple of years ago.

Why would someone leave such a place? Not for money, or promotion, or lifestyle. More typically it’s because their life goals had simply changed.

It happens. Twenty-somethings have kids. Project management loses its appeal after being the meat in too many sandwiches.  You cannot “retain” people whose life goals have shifted. And if you keep only the employment contract, they lose their enthusiasm.

But what about the greatest attraction pitch of all—"We Care about YOU."

If you could believe a firm really cared, if they could prove it to you—wouldn’t you want to join that firm? And stay there, until they were simply incapable of meeting your changed needs?

I’m saying yes, of course you would. They catch is, why would you believe it?

Well, suppose the firm paid a recruiter to hire you away from them? Suppose they paid you massive severance packages should you decide to leave? Suppose they developed alumni programs, like universities with “graduates?”

The really fine consulting firms—Bain & McKinsey, for example—truly value their alumni—you are a lifetime member, you’re just working the client side as an alum.

But even more sharply, think Zappo’s. Here’s one more great Zappo’s article, from Fortune’s January 22 issue 

Zappos bribes trainees to leave.  Few do.  When Zappo’s recently had to lay off 140 people, they were extra-generous in terms of severance. They offered 6 months of paid COBRA health care. And so on.  Remember, these are not people Zappo’s is trying to retain–these are people they’re letting go.

eBay gets it. "How you treat the leavers has a strong impact on how the stayers feel about the company," says Beth Axelrod, eBay’s SVP of human resources. 

Exactly.  How these companies attract—a values-based culture that actually values customers and employees, not just their abstract corporate-finance-centric “relationship capital”—directly drives their success at retention.

Don’t focus on retain—that’s about the company. Focus on attract—that’s about the employee. Then live the values.

It’s the paradox of trust. If you actually set someone else’s priorities above your own, you get back boatloads of what you want.

But only if you’re willing to put your motives second. You actually have to care.