Be the leader your people don’t walk out on

About 80 percent of the people working in my team would quit or stay because of one thing—my own leadership

Kumar Parakala
Updated: Apr 8, 2015 01:42:43 PM UTC

Kumar Parakala is a global thought leader and has served as a trusted advisor to some of the world’s largest corporations. Internationally respected, Kumar has worked in Australia, Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia-Pacific and India regions and held global leadership positions with KPMG. Based in Australia for more than two decades, he is the chair of the Centre of Corporate Leadership, an independent think-tank focused on helping global business leaders on leadership matters

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Photo: Getty Images

Most of us have spent significant time in leadership roles trying to understand and appreciate how difficult it is to find good people who are highly capable and are of value to our business. Often, we spend years grooming our future leaders and sometimes months recruiting them.

Over the years, I have managed teams with a large number of people and have quickly learnt that I am dependent on my top team for my success and to ensure organisational success. Its stability is of critical importance to achieve the results I promised. I realised over more than two decades of managing people that only a small percentage of my top talent would leave because of money, a better job or due to career change. About 80 percent of the people working in my team would quit or stay because of one thing—my own leadership.

I had the opportunity to work with many experienced leaders of large companies and whatever useful knowledge I have gained is from these great leaders. I have also learnt from my own mistakes working with a diverse range of people with different cultural backgrounds. I have captured a set of principles that I have successfully used to stop people quitting on me, reduce top talent attrition, improve stability and significantly grow the businesses that I had responsibility for. I know that it is not easy to find good people and it’s sometimes more difficult to keep them.

The principles mentioned below are not only important to retain top teams, but also to set the organisation on a growth trajectory, as people are most important resources for any advancement. In countries where there is economic slowdown, I have come to realise that one should not take comfort in the fact that the attrition rates are low and therefore, everything is working well. People can quit on their leader and still be in the same organisation because it may be too difficult to find a similar job elsewhere. Such people are more harmful to the business than those who leave, as they not only negatively impact productivity but also those who are working with them. Therefore, I would adhere to the principles mentioned below both in situations when top talent is quitting and when businesses are not growing and their competitors are outperforming them.

Emotional connection is critical Unlike some of the traditional managers, I don’t believe in maintaining a distance between my top team and myself, where I periodically give them goals and instructions as if I am programming robots and then measure their progress every month. I recognise that I am working with human beings. Their emotions and feelings play a big role in the success of my plans. I have always tried to establish a strong relationship with my top team. I want to know not only what is happening at work but also (if they are willing to share) their personal lives. A clinical metrics-driven assessment with no emotional connect can very quickly drive people out of the door. I believe that when leaders can get the emotional connection right, they can make ordinary individuals deliver extraordinary results. By the same token, highly skilled individuals can fail, if their leaders are not emotionally intelligent, or are purely metrics driven and are incapable of emotional connection. Showing empathy, building strong relationships and listening to your people (as opposed to telling them what to do) are important aspects of building emotional connection.

High integrity and ethical behaviour creates trust
Another reason people often quit is because they can’t trust their leaders and this is often due to perceptions of questionable ethics, values or integrity of their leaders. While the impact of this erosion is not evident immediately, leaders who are solely focused on self-gain, lose the trust of their people, who ultimately abandon them. Leaders who do not fully understand what high integrity and unethical behaviour really means often unknowingly behave in a manner that creates a trust deficit in their team. With time, this deficit becomes significant enough for people to leave. I have learnt that maintaining high integrity and ethics in all situations may be difficult, but it is important to create trust and retain people. It is also needed for my own happiness.

Serve your team with humility and respect
Any leadership role is an opportunity to serve others, enable them to achieve better results and ultimately make the organisation successful. No matter how much you pay a person, those who are disrespectful, arrogant or devalue their own people will lose them. In some organisations, I have seen instances where people have left their leaders and joined the competition at lesser compensation only because they feel disrespected or not valued. I have consistently observed these qualities of humility and respect in the top leaders of large successful companies and I have embraced them as an absolute necessity to be effective and to retain my best people.

Become more competent, not just technically
I realised early in my working life that my team is always watching me, often as a potential role model, and my competence as a leader would determine whether they will stay or go. If a leader cannot help their team members grow and succeed, they will go elsewhere. For me, leadership competence is just not limited to technical excellence. This includes abilities such as communicating a vision for the business, being flexible and open minded, setting right priorities, building strong teams, effective execution on plans and getting results that makes all involved look good.

Don’t take yourself too seriously
In my working life, I have seen many leaders get to the top and then get carried away with their self-importance and ego compromising their effectiveness. They suddenly start believing that their opinion matters more than others and get easily upset, hurt or defensive if things don’t go their way. When these leaders scream, threaten, play politics and behave badly, their team members quickly get out of the door. I felt humour always helps build closer ties with my team and successfully breaks down the barriers of hierarchy.

Based on my personal experience, I am confident that the five principles, if followed diligently, will reduce top talent attrition, increase the growth potential of businesses and contribute to happiness and job satisfaction of people.

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