Parts one and two of this series of articles (January 1999, p. 37 and February 1999, p. 49), explored creative and proven practices to attract and hire talented employees. But can you keep them? This article will provide some tools to keep the talent you need to build your business.

Good pay just isn't enough anymore. There was a time when if you paid people well, they typically put in their thirty years and were awarded with a gold watch at their retirement. Those days ended when "downsizing" and "rightsizing" during the 1980s stripped companies of top talent and did a lot of damage to the concept of company loyalty from a worker's perspective.

With today's tight labor market, workers demand more than just good pay. They want to work in a positive environment with competent and empathetic leadership and have a challenging job where they are always learning. Talented people will turn down higher-paying job offers to work for companies with a more appealing corporate culture and that offer them room for personal growth.

Communication. The foundation of any company's approach to keeping top talent is to develop and maintain an atmosphere of open communication. You must always keep employees informed of the company's goals, and what they as employees must do help the company reach these goals. Your employees want to know four things:

Where are you going as a company?

What are you doing to get there?

What can they do to contribute?

What's in it for them when they make their specific contributions?

Providing all employees with the answers to these questions is part of having an open corporate culture. This culture is one of the biggest selling points a company has and is one of the most difficult to copy. It has become an increasingly important part of a CEO's job to articulate a corporate vision and the strategies necessary to reach that ideal. He or she must motivate employees to work toward this common mission and to want to grow with the company. To help do this, competent leaders open the books and candidly communicate, through company-wide meetings, their quarterly and year-to-date results versus their goals. At these meetings, they also unveil new quarterly goals and build continuing support and buy-in among their troops.

Coaching. Getting employees to "buy-in" to the corporate culture is all part of coaching employees. Coaching people has become a "make or break" management skill. It encourages increased employee responsibilities and provides greater employee satisfaction. Coaching requires continual two-way communication and can be accomplished in two ways: informal day-to-day coaching, and more formal coaching sessions, held either weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, that encourage the setting of mutually agreed-upon goals.

Coaching employees accomplishes several goals. It helps employees overcome work obstacles to maximize their strengths and realize their full potential. The process also builds trust, provides for continuous learning, and develops people to meet current and future business needs. Coaching also helps managers be more attuned to their staff's morale.

A sports analogy c omparing coaching athletes to coaching employees works here. Highly motivated athletes or employees both want to win. If they are smart, they will apply what their coaches-or managers-try to teach them about improving their performance to accomplish a specific goal. For instance, a soccer coach might work with a player on a dribbling feint that will help him or her fake out defenders to get a clear path for a shot on goal. In the business environment, a good sales manager might coach a young salesperson on a particular sales technique that will help him or her close more sales, or on how to find the key buying influences at a customer's facility. In both scenarios, the player or employee needs to seek out constructive feedback on whether or not they have mastered these skills if they want to excel in the future.

Empathy. In this constricted labor market, companies need to demonstrate that they care about their employees' careers, as well as their lives beyond work. Otherwise, those same employees may jump to competitors who show they care more about such things. For example, top priorities for employees in families where both spouses work outside the home are finding and keeping dependable child care and having a flexible work schedule that allows them to participate in their children's activities. Offering flex-time work hours may be one solution to helping employees juggle their work and parenting responsibilities. Another lifestyle issue that distributors have been able to satisfy is a concern for physical fitness. Some electrical distributors provide on-site fitness centers where employees can work out or take aerobic classes.

Career building. Companies now must create an environment in which people can achieve their full potential by developing their job skills. Companies with career-development programs will attract and retain talented people. If your company does not provide career-path planning and training, your top talent will ultimately leave for better opportunities elsewhere. To make people believe they should invest in a long-term working relationship with your company because in the future it will offer them career opportunities worth staying for, you must develop career-path programs.

This approach works with every position, at any level. For example, take a look at the following career-path program for a traditionally lower-wage, high-turnover position: the warehouse worker. In a career-path program, on a warehouse specialist's first day on the job, he or she would attend a full-day orientation program that provides a two-hour overview of the electrical distributor's history, vision, markets and strategy. This warehouse specialist would then receive a facility tour and introductions to other warehouse personnel and employees in other departments. Over the next two hours, he or she would get general information on company benefits, policies and procedures. During the afternoon, the warehouse specialist would attend a three-hour career path planning session that includes an overview of the company's training program. The new employee would also work through a Meyers-Briggs inventory, which is a tool that human-resource professionals use to assess an employee's own unique set of talents and personality traits.

The next step in this training program is for the employee to work with a manager to craft a career-development plan. Before the end of the orientation day, the manager and employee would schedule a follow-up meeting on the employee's six-month anniversary date to discuss his or her potential career path at the company.

This new hire is then enrolled in the company's Warehouse Certification Program. This includes eleven classes reviewing receiving and put-away; picking and packing; shipping and loading; safe driving; forklift operation; wire-machine operation; safety practices; and product training in switches and receptacles, connectors, wiring devices, and wire and cable. Because this hypothetical distributor is also a member of the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), St. Louis, Mo., the association's Electrical Distributor Guided Education (EDGE) program is utilized for the product training segment.

In this company's training program, after completing six months of employment, all employees are expected to enroll in a "job-shadow program." This program gives new employees a taste of other employment opportunities that exist at your company. For instance, the warehouse specialist could choose to spend time shadowing a counter salesperson, where he or she will personally take orders from customers under a watchful sales mentor's eyes. This individual could also choose to shadow a purchasing agent where he or she can order material from vendors.

Upon completion of this job-shadow program, the counter salesperson or purchasing specialist is assigned to serve as the mentor for the warehouse specialist. He or she is then also enrolled in NAED's Electrical Products Education Course (EPEC). This self-study curriculum enables the warehouse specialist to learn about the specific applications of individual products and their interrelationships to other products. The mentor provides ongoing coaching to ensure successful completion of the EPEC program. After completion of the bronze level of EPEC's three-level program, the warehouse specialist can apply for any counter sales or purchasing openings.

Providing a structured training environment such as in the example shown here is an investment in your company's future. It's one of the most important investments you can make. Along with decreasing turnover and improving employee morale, the highly skilled work force that a training program like this will produce can be a differentiating factor in separating you from your competitors.