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Why Businesses Should Act More Like Universities

It’s time to start treating your employees like future alumni.

Key points

  • Effective people management means thinking about your people’s experience now and after they are gone.
  • Managers are one of the chief causes of people's unhappiness at work.
  • Great managers are partners on their people’s career paths, no matter where they end up.
Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash
People throwing graduation caps in the air.
Source: Photo by Pang Yuhao on Unsplash

I’ve spent more than 30 years working in and being a student of higher education. Over that time, one external critique has remained constant: colleges and universities need to start acting more like businesses.

No matter how you feel about it, everyone can benefit by learning from other models and structures. And there is one thing that higher education does really well, which can and should inform how we all do the work of management: the ongoing and intentional practice of developing a group of unabashedly enthusiastic and loyal fans known as alumni.

It’s no secret that lots of people are either leaving or thinking about leaving (or have already left) their jobs for something they consider “better.” According to the World Economic Forum, 20 percent of employees plan to leave their current employers in 2022, with increased pay and finding meaning at work cited as the top two reasons for this departure.

According to Gallup, “only 20 percent of employees strongly agree that they like what they do every day. And even more feel chronically burnt out: 28 percent of U.S. employees say they feel burnt out at work very often or always.” And one of the primary causes of that burnout, according to Gallup, is a lack of support from one’s manager.

If you are a people manager, know this: one way or another, your people are going to leave. Either another opportunity will come along, a life situation will force a change, or there may be an internal promotion or role shift. Or they will leave because you, their manager, are negatively impacting their health, wellbeing, and future prospects.

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

What would happen if you started to think of every person on your team as a future alumnus? How might you shift your management strategies? Here are four to consider.

Strategies to Turn Your Employees Into Alumni

  • Co-create intentional career plans from day one. Not every member of your team has aspirations for advancement or future management roles. And that’s OK. But every individual has the opportunity to learn and to grow while they are on your team and to think about how this position fits into a lifetime of future work.

Be an active participant in that journey by co-creating intentional career plans with each individual on your team. Ultimately, their growth is their responsibility. But you make it OK for them to do that work when you build intentional conversations about it and let them know that you support any future career decisions they make. Be a partner with them on that journey, not an obstacle in the path.

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

Maybe it’s asking them to serve on a committee or to lead a project. Maybe it’s shifting a responsibility or supporting a professional development experience. Not everything will or has to connect, and sometimes people have to leave to find that connection.

But they will do so with gratitude and loyalty when they know you’ve done everything you can to help them find whatever makes their hearts sing.

  • Conduct stay interviews. Organizations love an exit interview. And often, so do employees, especially the most disgruntled, because it finally feels like a safe space to burn a place down. But really, what good does this do? It rarely fixes what the problems were, and it certainly does nothing for that employee who is leaving (other than some momentary revenge satisfaction).

To turn your employees into future alumni, you must start having regular stay interviews. And that means being willing to ask for and really listen to feedback. It means making it safe and comfortable for people to tell you where you fall short and how you might improve things. And then you have to actually act on that feedback.

This isn’t a one-time exercise, nor is it a once-a-year conversation in performance reviews. It’s active, ongoing work. Universities always ask their alumni for feedback, and so should you. These are your most experienced and bought-in consumers, and their voice matters.

  • When they leave (and they will), be their biggest fan. Your people will leave. As I imagine, someday, so will you. So, think about how you want that experience to go for yourself. Do you want your manager to yell at you, shame you, and tell you how disappointed in you they are? Because that is what happens far too often with young professionals.

And at that point, their attitude is, “I’m so glad I never have to think about that place again.” It’s OK to be sad, disappointed, or grieve someone’s departure. That’s very normal. But how you act in this moment will make all the difference between someone thinking, “I’m bummed to leave, but I will recommend everyone I know to apply for this job,” instead of, “I’m so glad I’m getting out, and I’m going to make sure everyone I know never applies to a single position here.”

Be their biggest fan. Getting someone to their next professional opportunity is a win and one you should be enormously proud of. Remember, these are your future alumni. Will they be cheering from the sidelines or leading a boycott? That’s entirely up to you.

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