Building Employee Loyalty in the Branding and Design Industry: the US Experience

The article is written by Ronny Beck, Executive Director, Account Management at Interbrand, Cincinnati, USA

It might seem counterintuitive amidst the current cycle of high unemployment that employers need to work harder than ever to retain qualified and motivated employees. However, a survey by MetLife revealed that 36 percent of employees hope to leave their job in the next 12 months; many are watching for evidence of an improving economy to move to greener pastures. The study also showed that less than half of employees felt “very strong loyalty” to their employers.

Interestingly, salary and benefits are not always the key motivators behind an employee’s decision to stay or go. In my industry, branding and design, employees are often motivated by the process and end results of their strategic and creative explorations.  If employees really enjoy their work and are proud of what they and their company deliver, both strategically and creatively, these positive feelings can be a big contributor to retention. Also, younger employees tend to be more interested in career advancement, while more mature employees focus primarily on the quality of management.   Since it costs considerably more to hire and train a new employee than to keep one — the cost of turnover averages 150 percent of an employee’s salary  — it is imperative that companies identify ways to motivate and retain high-performing employees.

Having just celebrated my 10-year anniversary at Interbrand, following 13 years at a previous employer, I have come to recognize that the foundation for a successful employer-employee relationship is similar to that of a successful long-term personal relationship. Both are built on mutual commitment, communication (especially active listening), and respect. With this in mind, I offer the following five steps to building employee loyalty and retention.

1. Collaboratively paint a picture of your shared future. According to Kelley Services’ 2011 Global Workforce Index, only 37 percent of survey respondents said that their bosses have done a good job of preparing them for future success.  Managers should be actively involved in helping their employees craft a vision of their career path; the two should hold regular one-to-one meetings to plan, discuss and guide their advancement in the company. Show the employee how others have successfully followed that path; clearly identify success measures as well as potential challenges; share resources and tips to expand their skill set; perhaps assign a mentor to support their development. One cautionary note: One-to-one meetings often turn into discussions about the status of WHAT the employee is doing rather than HOW the employee is doing. The manager should use this one-to-one time to focus on the employee’s needs, career development, and future with the organization; catch up on daily work topics if time remains at the end of the session.

2. Promote overt and covert recognition. This seems like a no-brainer but it is surprising how many organizations – particularly large companies or those with employees who work remotely – do not promote a culture of employee appreciation. Slightly less than half (44 percent) of respondents to the Kelly survey said that their efforts at work are recognized or rewarded.  Praise and recognition should be punctual, public (when possible) and specific. Interbrand’s Cincinnati office, recently named a winner in the Cincinnati Business Courier’s 2011 competition for Greater Cincinnati’s Best Places to Work, has numerous programs to celebrate employee achievements:
•    Every Friday afternoon we hold “Design Stein,” an office-wide gathering at which we exchange information and make announcements, celebrate the great work we do, recognize outstanding employee contributors, share positive client feedback and business results, and mark staff anniversaries and birthdays. Our CEO addresses the company and anyone with news to share is welcome to speak.
•    Directors are given “thank-you coupons,” which they can give to employees to recognize a job well done. The coupons can be given in any amount up to $100. Employees purchase whatever they want with the coupons and are then reimbursed by the company.
•    We have a “Big Fish of the Month Award,” where peers nominate fellow employees for going above and beyond. The winner gets a big “fish hook” trophy and a premium parking space for the month, along with a $100 gift card.
•    “Peers to You” awards are presented at Interbrand Cincinnati’s year-end meeting. All agency employees (except senior executives) vote for an individual in each discipline (Account, Design, Implementation, Strategy and Support). The person with the most votes within each discipline is recognized in front of the entire agency and is awarded a check, as well. In addition to the discipline awards, there is an MVP award and an executive leadership choice award.

3. Institute two-to-one meetings. It is common practice for an employee to have regularly scheduled, one-to-one meetings with their immediate supervisor. At Interbrand, I instituted the practice of two-to-one meetings, which include an employee, their immediate supervisor (a Group Account Director, or GAD), and the GAD’s manager (me). These meetings encourage an open-door management policy at all levels and provide employees with an avenue to ensure that their voice is being heard at the top of the department. Being able to slow down communication and to objectively and actively listen to both employees is a helpful and supportive approach to resolving issues between an employee and their supervisor, such as perceptions of micro-management or unmet expectations. It also gives managers an opportunity to praise their employees to me first-hand, ensuring that the positive message is shared consistently in both directions.

4. Foster an environment that makes employees proud of the company they work for. As stated earlier, every employee wants to produce the highest-quality products – in Interbrand’s case, this means strategic branding and “breakthrough” packaging design solutions – and work for a company that is recognized as being good at what they do, as well as being socially responsible. Interbrand fosters a “people-centered” environment that encourages personal achievement, teamwork and involvement in local civic and charitable organizations. Our office undertakes a number of volunteer initiatives each year – including a major pro bono branding and design project for a local arts organization. The office also has a “Fun Committee” that organizes activities such as chili cook-offs, canoe trips, Red’s Game Night, tailgate parties, cook-outs, Halloween party/costume and decorating contests, and other holiday parties.

Offering training opportunities is another “people-centered” way to retain talented employees. Interbrand hosts in-house “lunch & learn” sessions; brings in top trainers on topics such as management, communication, presentations, time-management, and software training; and sends employees to outside conferences and seminars. It also offers an exchange program that enables employees to work for a time in a different Interbrand office.

5. Recognize and address problems – including a potential break-up.  As is the case with any personal relationship, breaking up can be hard to do. However, when there are recurring problems it is important for both manager and employee to recognize if you are working to stay together or working to part ways. A good manager recognizes when an employee is becoming disconnected and easing their way out of a position; acknowledge the situation in discussions with the employee, and give them clear options to consider – some meant to save the relationship and some intended to end it respectfully and professionally. Similarly, performance issues should be addressed promptly and clearly. It is important that this discussion be factual, not emotional, so the manager needs to have all documentation identifying the deficiencies in order, to be clear about what success measures look like, and to state and document what role s/he intends to play in the employee’s efforts to close the gap between current performance and described success. NOTE: It is a natural instinct for many managers to avoid confrontation, so they may lead into the conversation too carefully and be overly sensitive to the employee’s feelings. A better approach is to lead with facts absent emotion so the employee can plainly hear why the manager is unhappy with their performance and what is expected to rectify the situation. When the established time period for improvement concludes, the manager can then respond with both emotion and facts; to congratulate the employee for meeting the set requirements or express disappointment at failure and lay out the plan for termination. In either case, using this approach will help the manager to feel secure about the news being shared. Other employees will respect the process, as well, and the employee in question will be on the right path – whichever one it turns out to be.

As is the case with married or committed partners, employers and employees begin their union with enthusiasm and high hopes for the future. However, it takes work, open and honest communication, and constant, focused attention to maintain any personal relationship over the long term. Whether the economic climate is good or bad, investing time and resources in employee retention is always a smart decision.

About the Author

Ronny Beck is the Executive Director, Account Management at Interbrand Cincinnati, USA