To Attract and Retain Top Talent, Try Romance (Really!)

Tim Leberecht, Author, The Business Romantic

To Attract and Retain Top Talent, Try Romance (Really!)

It’s a tough talent world out there. While the economy is picking up, workers are disenchanted. Worldwide, as a recent Gallup poll shows, only 13% of them are engaged. Many employees feel disconnected from their leadership: Studies indicate that trust in business leaders is extremely low, and there is a concerning gap between management believing their staff is inspired by their company’s mission and how committed their employees truly are. Add to that a growing fickleness and FOMO (Fear-Of-Missing-Out), especially among millennials who change jobs up to six times until they’re 25, and you have a real challenge on your hands.

Business leaders therefore must look to creative ways to attract and retain top talent. They must be close observers of the zeitgeist and in tune with what people truly desire. It turns out, as a recent BCG study found, that compensation is no longer the top-ranking factor of employee happiness. Likewise, social security and perks, while certainly valuable, are increasingly eclipsed by purpose: is important to people that that their work has a clearly defined positive impact on the world.

But there is another dimension to inspiring employees that we often tend to forget: an environment where people do things “for the love of it” and have their “heart in it.” I call it the romance of work. It is the art of creating meaningful workplace experiences that transcend self-interest and rational decision-making; those moments in our office lives that flip pragmatic business logic to uncover greater meaning and beauty in the most mundane day-to-day interactions.

Such romantic qualities, however, debunk some dearly held leadership myths. For starters, we think that in this era of social media that transparency is imperative. Some even herald ‘TMI’ as a new business paradigm. But too much information kills the romance. When everything is known and explicitly stated, mystery and aura will fade, and with them spaces for half-truths, speculation, and secrets—all those romantic objects of desire that stimulate our imagination and make us wonder “what’s behind that door.” As leaders, peel all the layers of mystery away at your peril—total emptiness may await you. It’s the quintessential romantic premise: When everything is available in abundance, nothing is interesting. Already, companies are changing tact: start-ups such as Secret Cinema (“mystery screenings”), Surprise Industries (“surprise-as-a-service”), or House of Genius (ideation sessions) deliberately provide “not-enough-information” to create foggy experiences that keep their customers spellbound. Moreover, an aura of mystique famously drives demand for McKinsey; a highly ambiguous organizational design does wonders for fashion designer Eileen Fisher; and my former employer, product design and innovation firm Frog, ran a secret email list for those in the know (I wasn’t but remain intrigued until today).

Another common belief is that comfort is key. The more convenient an experience is, the more we like it. But a thumbs up is not the same as having skin in the game. At The Box night club in New York, the guests with the most expensive tickets find themselves—much to their surprise—in the kitchen, assisting the staff. First they are shocked, then exhilarated. Evolutionary psychologists point out that we derive deep meaning from “critical events” that are not exactly life-threatening but give us the playful thrill of a disruptive activity pushing us squarely outside of our comfort zone. The same is true for our workplace experiences. Massage therapists and volleyball courts are nice features, but true emotional attachment comes from small “hacks” to our routine that make us sacrifice, make us try harder. So swap desks for a week or even swap roles for a day. Call an ad-hoc meeting and ask people to give an improvised talk to colleagues they’ve never met. Randomize lunch pairings. Or do as Zappos does: the online retailer makes all job applicants sign up for its own social network, Inside Zappos, to make sure they get to know the company’s unique culture and possible future colleagues before they apply. In other words: somewhat counterintuitively, Zappos makes it harder, not easier for people to apply.

Mystery, surprise, and even discomfort: such romantic experiences are important in business because they are the ultimate differentiators in a world of maximizers and optimizers. They help us create organizations that our employees can fall in love (again and again), after the magic of the beginning is gone and far beyond a merely benefit-driven relationship. Plus, “romancing” our companies will not only make them more successful—it will also make our work lives more fulfilling.

About the Author

Tim Leberecht is the author of The Business Romantic (Harper Business) and chief marketing officer of global design and architecture firm NBBJ, which has helped Amazon, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, Samsung, Tencent, and others create meaningful places and experiences.