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When My Company Had High Turnover of New Employees, I Realized the Problem Was Me

· Self Improvement

For years, I have hung Mahatma Gandhi’s quote advising me to “be the change” I want to see in this world in the entryway of my apartment. After years of trying to make the world a better place through my work with Practice Makes Perfect (PMP) and hitting what at times felt like insurmountable walls, I started to heed Gandhi’s wise advice. Specifically, as our team has grown, and the impact of our work could no longer be driven by me directly, I found myself having to limit my reach only to things that were under my auspices.

It is an incredibly humbling realization when after years of dreaming of this big change I would create in the world, I came to understand that the only thing I have control over is myself. Explicitly, how I spent my time, how I communicated, how I interacted with others, how I reacted, what I wore, what I ate, what I recognized and what I was grateful for.

Despite my team’s sincerest efforts to build a workplace where people felt valued and providing benefits that only large companies that were wildly profitable or unicorn-like private companies could offer, we struggled to retain entry-level talent. If you asked me what my team’s biggest weakness was, I would posit it was our inability to retain for more than a year young, smart, passionate people who believed in our mission and wanted to make a difference.

I wish I could say it was by choice, but it was not. When the first couple of people transitioned out, I was quick to think it was them and it was not me. After three years of less than ideal transitions -- my biggest regret is that it took me three years to get to this point -- I did what Gandhi implored us all to do, which was self-reflect. When things in your external world are not going the way you intend for them and you are not receiving the outcomes that you were hoping for, instead of passing blame onto external situations, start your self-reflection process by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. What is it about me or my personality that it is driving this outcome?
  2. What is it about my actions that have led me here?
  3. What can I change about myself or influence within my environment that might impact this outcome? 

A couple of years ago, I started to notice that my team and my work were slipping. We were not performing at the level at which I was hoping we could be performing. After finally pushing beyond the denial phase and accepting that we could do more, I started my process of deep self-reflection asking myself those three questions. It didn’t take me a long time before I noticed that my business was slipping because I was slipping. Our performance, or lack thereof, started with me.

I was not focused. In fact, I was starting to dabble in a few other ventures, committing myself to multiple communities, and occasionally popping out of the office during the workday to tend to my other obligations that increased in frequency with my new commitments. But, this lack of focus was not just impacting me. Others on my team were influenced by it, too. My expectations started to soften. I could not in good conscience hold others on my team to an expectation that I could not even meet.

Within a few weeks of achieving that consciousness, I re-focused my work and dropped more than half of my nonessential commitments to continue driving our business forward. The change started to happen almost immediately after I readjusted my routine. Everyone around me sensed that I had stepped it up and I was no longer settling for less than their all.

When it came to fixing the retention challenge, the self-reflection process was no different. Again, within hours, I learned what it was about me and my leadership style that was driving this outcome. Namely, I am impatient, and I have incredibly high expectations. While others may have been ashamed to admit that, I was not. I was more embarrassed that I had not understood the ramifications of those tendencies much sooner. For the people who report to me, they saw my personality and they felt like they could work in a high-pressure environment that would push them to do more for our country’s most vulnerable kids. In most cases, they shared the same tendencies I had.

Where this becomes problematic is when it starts to trickle down. Being that we’re a startup, things are always evolving. It also means that some things are still missing, like a robust training program for entry-level employees. I might be crazy, but I do not think that being impatient and having incredibly high expectations is necessarily a terrible thing -- especially when you are working towards improving educational outcomes in historically oppressed communities and every day counts. I also think being impatient and having incredibly high expectations works well when people have the skills they need to be able to deliver on those expectations. Where this does not work so well is when you impose incredibly high expectations and infuse impatience onto people who do not have the skills or are not trained to have the skills they need to succeed. Mea culpa. Completely my fault. And it starts at the top.

In our case, the solution is obvious. If we are going to continue to be impatient and have incredibly high expectations, then we need to hire people who have the skills to be successful. That might mean paying a premium. If we decide not to go that route, then the only other alternative is to hire entry-level people and make sure they are given the training they need to be successful.

Gandhi originally said, “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” Every now and again when I hit a wall or notice the outcomes I’m realizing are not the ones I’m intending, I engage in this powerful self-reflection process to ultimately modify myself in order to change the world.