So there you are, Mr. or Ms. Big Enchilada, having a fairly decent day, when it’s abruptly ruined: Yet another of your most experienced and valuable senior people walks into your office with the awful news that he or she is leaving for a better job elsewhere. In this squeaky-tight job market, after all, everyone is out to poach your top talent, and recruiters are busy finding ever more ingenious ways to entice so-called passive candidates—the ones who aren’t even job hunting, the people you can least afford to lose.
Offering more money would be a simple fix, but it probably won’t help. Your competitors have it, too. More to the point, this usually isn’t about the Benjamins.
When executive job board Ladders recently surveyed 16,500 of its job-switching members (83% of them with annual salaries between $80,000 and $250,000), the researchers got a surprise. Across a wide range of industries and functions, only about one in three (30%) mentioned pay, and most of those were concentrated in health care, human resources, marketing, and sales.
Instead, in almost every field, the two reasons most often cited for flying the coop were boredom and long hours—especially, the study notes, in finance, engineering, project management, and IT.
Dissatisfaction with higher-ups, by the way, is relatively rare in these circles. “It’s a cliche by now to say that people don’t quit jobs, they quit managers,” observes Marc Cenedella, CEO of Ladders. “But at this level, that doesn’t seem to apply.” Fewer than one in five (19%) gave dislike of a boss as a factor in their decision to quit.
What can you do to hang on to your best people? First, while things seem to be going well (right now, for instance), make a list of who they are. Then, block out time in your already-packed schedule to sit each one down for a real conversation.
“Nobody wakes up one morning all of a sudden bored with their job, or feeling exhausted by endless hours,” says Stacey Engle, an executive vice president at leadership-development consultants Fierce. Rather, what she often sees in companies is that people quit “gradually, then suddenly. Someone’s frustration with their position builds up and builds up over time, until they’ve just had it.” Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to step in and stop that process.
Whatever you do, Engle adds, do not ask, “How’s it going?” The question is far too vague, and “people who hear it may shut down, assuming the only answer you want to hear is, ‘Fine.'” To raise the odds that a talented manager will brush off the next headhunter who calls, “you need to connect on a deeper level. This question doesn’t get you there.”
Three questions that might:
- What is something you feel is holding you back? “This is a loaded question,” Engle notes, “but it’s worth asking”—in large part because it’s an invitation to kvetch about, for instance, inefficient processes, recalcitrant team members, or outrageous hours. Says Engle, “It’s critical to start there and then ask probing questions, even digging down to ‘What else? What else? What else?'”
- What would you like to be doing two months from now? “Two months isn’t long, but it’s enough time to set short-term, attainable goals,” like getting home in time for dinner at least a couple of nights a week, or finishing an interesting project that’s been pushed to the back burner, Engle says. You can also ask about a longer time horizon, of course—say, a year or two. Use the discussion as a chance to “look at someone’s skills and experience with fresh eyes,” she suggests, and offer him or her a change if it seems called for—”sometimes more, or less, travel, or a role in another part of the company or another part of the world. We’re seeing more companies encouraging managers to make lateral moves into areas where they can learn new things.”
- What difference do you want to make here? It’s interesting that, in almost every field, well over half of Ladders’ survey respondents said the “best part of my current job” is “knowledge that I’m providing a valuable service.” Wanting to make the world (or, at the very least, the company and its stakeholders) better off in one way or another is, beyond a paycheck, why humans go to work. Asking your best people about it, Engle believes, can help build “a greater connection to their individual purpose, and the purpose of the organization.” Taking their answers seriously might even help keep them from taking their individual purpose out the door.
Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century. Each week, she’ll answer your most challenging career questions. Have one? Ask her on Twitter or email her at email@example.com.