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Why companies should act more like universities

People are throwing graduation caps in the air.

Source: Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash

I have spent over 30 years working and studying in higher education. During this period, one external criticism has remained constant: colleges and universities need to start acting more like businesses.

No matter what you think, everyone can benefit from learning other patterns and structures. And there’s one thing higher education does really well that can and should inform the way we all do management work: the ongoing, intentional practice of developing a group of staunchly enthusiastic and loyal fans known as former students.

It’s no secret that many people leave or are considering leaving (or have already left) their job for something they consider “better”. According to the World Economic Forum, 20% of employees plan to leave their current employer in 2022, with a pay rise and finding meaning in the workplace cited as the top two reasons for leaving.

According to Gallup, “only 20% of employees strongly agree that they love what they do every day. And even more feel chronically burnt out: 28% of American employees report feeling burnt out at work very often or always. And one of the main causes of this exhaustion, according to Gallup, is the lack of support from his manager.

If you’re a people manager, know this: one way or another, your employees are going to leave. Either another opportunity will present itself, a life situation will force a change, or there may be an internal promotion or role change. Or they will leave because you, their manager, are negatively impacting their health, well-being and future prospects.

Your employees are your number one marketing tool. So consider this: if your employees left you now, would they do so as enthusiastic and loyal fans of you and the organization, or as bitter, disgruntled former employees, relieved to have escaped?

What would happen if you started thinking of everyone on your team as a future alumnus? How could you change your management strategies? Here are four to consider.

Strategies to turn your employees into graduates

  • Co-create intentional career plans from day one. Not everyone on your team has aspirations for advancement or future leadership roles. And that’s okay. But each individual has the opportunity to learn and grow while on your team and to consider how this position fits into a future work life.

Actively participate in this journey by co-creating intentional career plans with each member of your team. Ultimately, their growth is their responsibility. But you allow them to do this work when you establish intentional conversations about it and let them know that you support any future career decisions they make. Be a partner with them on this journey, not an obstacle in the way.

  • Create opportunities for continued engagement. People want meaning and purpose at work, which means finding ways to connect work to their meaning and purpose. One of the benefits of co-creating career development plans is that it gives you insight into their meaning and purpose, which then allows you to find opportunities to make that connection.

Maybe ask them to sit on a committee or lead a project. Maybe it’s about transferring responsibility or supporting a professional development experience. Not everything is going to or has to be connected, and sometimes people have to leave to find that connection.

But they’ll do it with gratitude and loyalty when they know you’ve done all you can to help them find what makes their heart sing.

  • Conduct residency interviews. Organizations love an exit interview. And often the same goes for the employees, especially the disgruntled ones, as it finally feels like a safe space to burn a place down. But really, what’s the point? It rarely solves problems, and it certainly does nothing for the departing employee (other than momentary revenge satisfaction).

To transform your employees into future alumni, you must start having regular residence interviews. And that means being willing to ask and really listen to feedback. This means making it safe and comfortable for people to tell you where you’re failing and how you could improve things. And then you have to actually act on that feedback.

This is not a one-time exercise, nor an annual conversation in performance reviews. It is active and continuous work. Universities always ask their alumni for feedback, and so should you. They are your most experienced and purchased consumers, and their voice matters.

  • When they leave (and they will), be their biggest fan. Your men will leave. As I imagine, one day you will too. So think about how you want this experience to play out for yourself. Do you want your manager to yell at you, shame you, and tell you how disappointed he is in you? Because that’s what happens all too often with young professionals.

And then their attitude is, “I’m so glad I never have to think about this place again.” It’s normal to be sad, disappointed or to mourn someone’s passing. It’s very normal. But the way you act right now will make all the difference between someone thinking, “I’m disappointed to be leaving, but I’ll recommend everyone I know to apply for this job,” instead of, “I’m so glad to be out, and i’m gonna make sure everyone i know never applies for a single job here.

Be their biggest fan. Bringing someone to their next professional opportunity is a victory you should be extremely proud of. Remember, these are your future alumni. Will they cheer from behind the scenes or lead a boycott? It is entirely up to you.

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