Leigh Branham: An interview by Bob Morris

Leigh Branham is Principal and Founder of Keeping the People, Inc., Overland Park, Kansas. Leigh has been researching and speaking about best practices in employee engagement and retention since 1995. He helps companies analyze the root causes of employee disengagement and turnover, then develop and implement strategies to grow revenues and profits by becoming better places to work.

Leigh is the author of The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It’s Too Late, 2nd Edition (AMACOM Books, 2012), updated based on 1,000+ new third-party post-exit interviews since 2005). Leigh’s previously authored, with Mark Hirschfeld, Re-Engage: How America’s Best Places to Work Inspire Extra Effort in Extraordinary Times (McGraw-Hill, February, 2010), based on their analysis of 2.1 million employee engagement surveys. The 7 Hidden Reasons and Branham’s previous book, Keeping the People Who Keep You in Business, were selected by The Library Journal and Executive Book Summaries among the top 30 business books of the year.

He has consulted with multinational companies and spoken at human resource and leadership conferences in China, Poland, Canada, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile, Singapore, and Malaysia. Leigh has been interviewed on National Public Radio, and widely quoted by the Associated Press and in publications such as BusinessWeek as an expert on employee engagement and retention. His commentary on why companies lose good people appeared in the June, 2008, issue of the Harvard Business Review.

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Morris: Before discussing the Second Edition of The 7 Hidden Reasons That Employees Leave, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Branham: I would say Richard Bolles, author of the perennial best-seller, What Color is Your Parachute? Reading his book encouraged and enlightened me significantly when I was going through a career change as I turned 30. Later, my wife and I attended his two-week workshop and he invited us to be on his training staff the following year.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Branham: Again, that would be Dick Bolles. The insights I gained from him deeply influenced me both personally and professionally.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Branham: Yes, when I decided to change careers from advertising to career counseling, I realized for the first time that I was mission-driven to help, educate, and enlighten others. Even though I had been attracted to the creativity of advertising, after four years in the business, I realized I wasn’t contributing in a way that was meaningful to me.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Branham: Quite invaluable–the liberal education I received as an English major at Vanderbilt greatly broadened my perspective, as did my graduate degrees in Journalism and Education at the University of Missouri.

Morris: What do you know now about business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Branham: That my best fit in the business world would be as a consultant. I might have become self-employed sooner.

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Branham: Interesting question. There are so many–Up and Away, Glengarry Glen Ross, Mad Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Godfather, It’s A Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane, The Corporation, There Will Be Blood, Network, The Insider, The Social Network, Office Space, The Aviator, Wall Street, Big Night, Margin Call, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Hucksters.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching;

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Branham: More leaders need to heed this wisdom. (See V. Nayar’s, Employees First, Customers Second.)

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Branham: Those who find truth are dangerous to power. They can upset the status quo and even lead a revolution (e.g. Copernicus, Darwin, Freud)

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Branham: Too many people are borrowing the ambitions of others they admire instead of discovering their own uniqueness and calling.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Branham: I couldn’t agree more. Nayar’s book speaks to this, as does Abrashoff’s It’s Your Ship. Times have changed.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘[begin italics] Should [end italics] we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘[begin italics] Which [end italics] mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Branham: Couldn’t be truer. Innovation is the great imperative of our age, and we won’t get it by punishing mistakes.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegation work to others?

Branham: Ego–They believe that’s what they’re being paid the big bucks for–to sit around their board rooms, think up the perfect strategy, and proclaim it from on high.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Branham: Followers are magnetized by compelling stories.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Branham: Culture is extremely difficult to change. It has to start with a very passionate and determined leader painting a vivid picture of the future and the organization is convinced is right. Then it’s a matter of involving the people in making the change and helping them see that what they have to give up will be exceeded by what they have to gain.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the great need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?
Branham: That MBA students should be required to get experience in the work world for at least two years before being admitted (see Managers, Not MBA’s by Henry Mintzberg)

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Branham: Maximize employee engagement and that will then maximize innovation.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The 7 Hidden Reasons That Employees Leave. When and why did you decide to write it?

Branham: It was 2003 and I had seen a survey in the Harvard Management Update reporting that 89% of managers believed that “more pay” was the main reason employees leave. I thought, whoa–that’s so wrong, and I set out to find out where there might be independent research about the real root-cause reasons employees leave.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Branham: Yes, absolutely–the main one being that the data that The Saratoga Institute allowed me to analyze–19,700 post-exit surveys from 17 industries–revealed the total reverse of what manager’s believe. Only 12% of employees, when reporting why they really left to a trusted third party said that “more pay” was the main reason. The remaining 88% were the seven reasons I write about in the book: unrealistic expectations of the job and work environment, person-job mismatch/lack of challenge, lack of manager coaching and feedback, lack of career growth/learning opportunity, not feeling valued (of which pay is only one of several dimensions), work/life imbalance/stress/overwork, and lack of trust and/or confidence in senior leaders.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Branham: Not significantly. I quickly realized as I started outlining the book that it would really be more about employee engagement and employee retention. I was able to find more examples of inspiring and creative best engagement practices than I thought I would at first. There are 54 major engagement practices in the book organized under the 7 reasons. A company doesn’t have to implement them all. They comprise a menu really and each company needs to implement the ones that are right for its key talent and business objectives.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between the first and second editions?

Branham: Updated research is the main one. For the past seven years I have been surveying visitors to my website–www.keepingthjepeople.com–by having them complete a post-exit “Decision-to-Leave” survey regarding a job they left in the past. More than 1,000 people have completed the survey and I incorporated their responses in the new edition. Not surprisingly, the new data pointed to the same 7 reasons, with a few interesting twists–because of recent pay freezes and smaller raises, I believe, pay was slightly more important, and trust in senior leaders was more of a factor, probably due to loss of confidence in senior leaders generally, partly due to perceptions of CEO Wall Street-related malfeasance, greed, and excessive self-interest.

Morris: With regard to the seven reasons, how so “hidden”? To whom? Are they hidden or in fact unrecognized or ignored?

Branham: They are hiding in plain sight, and not really hidden at all, unless, of course you are one of the 89% of managers who believes that “more pay” is the main reason employees leave. The reason so many managers believe that is because 1. they don’t want to believe it might really be due to something they did or didn’t do, and 2. most employees actually do get more pay when they leave and it’s easier to report that as the main reason for leaving than the thing that started them looking in the first place.

Morris: Which (if any) of the reasons discussed in the first edition most decisive?

Branham: Not feeling valued is the reason cited more than any other, mainly because it encompasses so many dimensions–not being appropriately recognized, not being consulted about decisions that affect you, not having your ideas solicited or acted on, not being included in meetings/discussions, not having the right resources or latest technology, not to mention pay.

Morris: What about those in the second edition?

Branham: It would still be Feeling Valued, with pay mentioned somewhat more frequently than in the Saratoga data, as I mentioned.

Morris: To what extent (if any) can an organization’s recruiting, interviewing, and hiring process lower its attrition rate? Please explain.

Branham: This can have a huge impact in addressing reasons 1 and 2. Most organizations are using only a handful of about 50+ guerilla sourcing tactics they could be using (I have a nice list of those available for anyone interested). Most organizations don’t use behavior-based interviewing techniques in spite of the fact that it has been proven to be more effective, and most companies aren’t doing nearly enough to give recruits a realistic preview of the job and work environment. As a result, 40% of the U.S. workforce quits in the first six months.

Morris: I wish I had a dollar for every time I have encountered someone who said or wrote something to the effect that people quit bosses, not companies. What do you think?

Branham: It’s the conventional wisdom and it’s true, as far as it goes, which isn’t far enough. Too often, bad managers are taking their cues from bad senior leaders, who set the tone, the example, and the cultural values. The 7 hidden reasons employees leave are equally impacted by senior leaders and direct managers. Enlightened and caring senior leaders tend to hire, promote, and reward good managers and not tolerate bad ones.

Morris: In your opinion, why are so many ignorant or indifferent to the reasons for attrition?

Branham: For the two reasons indicated above, plus one other: the tendency to count it as disloyalty when someone leaves–the “don’t let the door hit you in the rear end on your way out” phenomenon. Smart managers say to departing employers, “We’ll keep a chair warm for you until you decide to come back…stay in touch.”

Morris: What are the [begin italics] real [end italics] costs of attrition?

Branham: The research says somewhere between 50% of compensation (for lower-paying positions) and 150% of compensation for higher-paying jobs. Readers who want to get a more accurate fix can use the cost of turnover auto-calculator on my website which includes the lost-productivity estimate, which is so often overlooked.

Morris: Which specific events most likely cause employee disengagement?
Branham: We found that about two-thirds of all turnover is triggered by a shocking or jarring last-straw event, such as being passed over for promotion, an harassment incident, a conflict with a co-worker, realizing you are being paid less than someone else in the same position, having to perform a distasteful job duty, and the list goes on.

Morris: Long ago, I concluded that what employees want and what customers want are remarkably similar. Feeling appreciated, for example. What do you think?

Branham: Absolutely. Human beings want to feel special.

Morris: I also concluded that companies with severe employee attrition also tend to have severe customer attrition. Do you agree?

Branham: Absolutely. The research shows it, but really it’s just common sense. No customer wants to find themselves dealing with a different employee every time. Remember the Cheers TV sitcom–“where everybody knows your name. “The American Quality Institute found a few years ago that 66% of all lost customers could be traced to an interaction the customer had with an indifferent employee.

Morris: Now please focus on the seven reasons on which you focus in the book and suggest an [begin italics] immediate response [end italics] that will help to prevent it.

First, #1: “The job or workplace was not what was expected”

Branham: Hold realistic job previews where managers and future colleagues frankly discuss the good, bad, and ugly about the realities of the work experience.

Morris: #2, “The mismatch between job and person”

Branham: Conduct rigorous selection process, including behavior-based interviewing, multiple interviews with other staff, and competency-based job analysis to uncover best-fit personality patterns

Morris: #3, “Too little coaching and feedback”

Branham: Train managers not to avoid difficult performance conversations and how to conduct them.

Morris: #4, “Too few growth and advancement opportunities”

Branham: Keep providing learning opportunities, even during times of recession. Make sure all managers have current Individual Development Plans for all their direct reports. Give current employees the chance to interview for new jobs before outside candidates. Allow frequent internal movement, job-swapping, job trials, and make it clear to managers who block movement of top performers–“you don’t own the talent.”

Morris: #5, “Feeling Devalued and Unrecognized”

Branham: Make every employee feel appreciated and listened to. Keep them informed. Hold 50-50 meetings where the leader speaks half the time and employees speak the other half. Train managers in the right way to recognize (yes, there really is a right way). If you pay scales are below market or way out of proportion to what senior leaders and managers are making, raise pay.

Morris: #6, “Stress from overwork and work-life imbalance”

Branham: Stop loading top performers with workloads they cannot sustain. When employees make sacrifices for the good of the company, give them compensatory time off. Be extra sensitive to employees going through personal crises. Offer flexible work schedules that allow employees to have a life outside work and maintain family responsibilities.

Morris: And finally, #7, “Loss of trust and confidence in leaders”

Branham: Get out amongst employees and engage them in conversation. Ask for their ideas on how to make the business better and serve customers better. Show by your actions that you are willing to give in order to get back as opposed to “if we give, employees will take advantage.”

Morris: Opinions are divided – sometimes [begin italics] sharply [end italics] – about the value of 360º feedback. Some think it should be anonymous, others transparent, and still others want to have absolutely nothing to do with it. What do you think? Why?

Branham: Ideally, we wouldn’t need 360º feedback if everyone were comfortable speaking the difficult truth to everyone else. Some organizations, like Winchester Hospital in Winchester, MA. have trained their employees to give frank, but difficult feedback and have given up using 360’s. Most organizations aren’t there yet. If you use 360’s, which I do with clients, I recommend anonymity but caution them not to use 360’s for performance evaluations–just for development, with the individual deciding whether to share the results with their manager.

Morris: To what extent (if any) can the current depression/recession/whatever had an impact on employee attrition? Please explain.

Branham: It’s reduced employee attrition significantly, so much as that many companies have become complacent about employee retention and engagement. When the economy becomes healthier, employees will have more options to move on and the situation will change.

Morris: Why do so many organizations not have exit interviews?

Branham: Because they don’t trust the information they get as being accurate…for good reason. Most departing employees don’t want to tell the real truth about why they left because they are afraid they might burn a bridge.

Morris: What is the most serious mistake made by organizations that do? What in fact should they do?

Branham: Doing the interviews themselves is the biggest mistake. They should hire a third-party consultant to conduct the survey or interviews, which I do for several clients.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The 7 Hidden Reasons That Employees Leave and wants you to help reduce (if not eliminate) talent attrition. Where to begin?

Branham: I usually recommend conducting an employee engagement survey as the first step, with a strong commitment to take action based on the results, because if they don’t, things will get worse.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The 7 Hidden Reasons That Employees Leave, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Branham: Realize that smaller companies have several advantages–you are closer to your people than CEOs in larger companies, your employees get to wear more hats and have more job variety, they can grow as the company grows, and the teamwork and collegiality is usually far greater than at large companies. Leverage these advantages! One of your best talent pools is employees of large companies who are frustrated by the lack of these great advantages!

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Leigh cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His homepage

His quarterly free subscription e-newsletter, Keeping the People Report:

Book website for Re-Engage: How America’s Best Places to Work Inspire Extra Effort in Extraordinary Times

His page for The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave (AMACOM Books)

His Amazon page

His YouTube videos:


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