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Unlocking the Power of Sustainable Leadership for Employee Retention

4 Mins read

Even now, years after the onset of the “Great Resignation,” employee turnover continues to bedevil many companies, especially those in the healthcare, finance, insurance, and manufacturing industries. According to Forbes, almost 38 percent of employees still quit before their first year of employment is done, and the 2023 average US rate of employee turnover is 3.8 percent.

How can we best keep our talent? The answer is sustainable leadership.

What is sustainable leadership?

By sustainable leadership, I mean a leadership approach that creates an environment where employees thrive. These leaders concern themselves with generativity, cultivating their team members, encouraging them to take increasing responsibility, and helping them attain their personal goals. Sustainable leaders treat everyone as equals and solicit their wisdom because they know the most advantageous solutions only appear when the team’s full resources emerge.

For sustainable leaders, the employee experience is a central priority. Job satisfaction soars, employees develop an unwavering dedication to the organization, and elevated retention rates naturally follow.

As one review of an important longitudinal study explains, “more satisfied employees and more ‘embedded’ workers [are] less likely to leave, with this relationship strengthening over time.” While this description might sound inspiring, what does sustainable leadership actually look like in practical terms?

Sustainable leadership focuses on the long-term

Many leaders approach business as though it were a “finite game,” in the terminology of Simon Sinek, perceiving an end point toward which they bend their energies. Rushing toward this goal, they neglect the middle — the quotidian journey of achieving those objectives.

In my experience, this tendency tempts them to make inappropriate sacrifices to obtain short-term gains. For instance, they might compromise their ethics in a quest to boost stock prices, almost as though they believe they can “win” business this way. And maybe they do feel like they have won temporarily until they realize the treadmill is spinning faster than ever.

Sustainable leadership acknowledges that business is actually what Sinek would call an “infinite game” — it’s not something one can “win.” Instead, sustainable leadership prioritizes the necessary day-to-day work of running the company. You focus on what you can do today to strengthen your team, make things better for your successor, and build the company to last.

The most important thing is understanding how we work. Life is always teaching us this. This is also why sustainable leadership must be transparent.

Sustainable leadership is transparent

All too often, many business leaders are afraid to ask for help, worrying they will lose their team’s respect if they don’t always have all the answers. Consequently, they restrict their problem-solving ability to what they and their closest circle can bring to the company, rather than taking advantage of the full range of options their other team members could perceive.

Conversely, sustainable leaders don’t try to solve everything on their own. Instead, they recognize that they might not even be able to perceive the full scope of a problem from their perspective and know they need to hear from the rest of the team to comprehend it fully, much less solve it effectively. That’s why sustainable leaders communicate authentically with their employees and even allow themselves to be vulnerable, asking for advice and help.

Moreover, if you are transparent with people, you will get transparency back. Getting honest feedback is valuable in business because it helps you address problems and create more efficient operations, but it’s also important because statistics show employees who feel they can provide honest feedback to their supervisors are more likely to stay.

That said, being transparent doesn’t mean telling everything to everyone. It’s essential to be mindful of what you share with the whole team. In addition, it can be vital to offer a productive interpretation of any facts that could be twisted in alternative ways.

For instance, if you report each section’s performance and one is lacking, people from other parts of the company could become resentful, which would create divisions within the team and become counterproductive. The point of internal communication is to build, not tear down. In this case, providing context and framing about what’s going on in a way that encourages mutual understanding and support is critical.

Ethics, empathy, authenticity

In addition, sustainable leaders are ethical and relate to their employees as equals. Great leaders don’t commoditize their employees or treat them like a mere means to an end but rather approach people as fellow travelers and human beings.

Moreover, this is the right thing to do for productivity. Studies show that more democratic and “transformational” leadership styles that encourage collaboration and mutual respect correlate with improved performance.

Being authentic and empathizing with others is another critical component. Above all, however, don’t be fake — people can tell when you’re being insincere. When communicating with a staff member going through a tough time, humility can go a long way. If you don’t have personal experience with that challenge yourself, acknowledge that you can’t know what they are going through and offer sympathy.

Treating people this way has the added advantage of making you more relatable as a person, which is one of the biggest challenges for many business executives. If your team doesn’t relate to you and genuinely like you, their dedication to your business will not be as strong as it could be. If you build your interpersonal and communication skills, however, you will be increasingly able to find the right language and connect genuinely with your team.

Be the leader you want to see

Are you willing to do whatever it takes to improve your company? If you are, you must be ready to start by improving yourself because your company will only grow as far as you can take it. Great leaders improve as people, and their companies improve by extension.

Take care of yourself as a leader, and be the leader you would like to work with. This is the essence of sustainable leadership.

Craig Goodliffe, CEO and founder of Cyberbacker, is an entrepreneur, leadership expert, and business coach. Known for his expertise in cross-cultural business development, he has led Cyberbacker to become a global leader in virtual assistance and administrative support services, transcending geographical boundaries to empower businesses worldwide. As a Keller Williams MAPS coach, he guides clients towards achieving seven-figure incomes.

Leadership stock image by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

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