Employee retention: how to crack the code

What I’ve learnt over the years is that there is no one secret ingredient to retaining staff. In my early days of running a business, I had high staff turnover and it used to drive me crazy the amount of money, effort, time and emotional energy I would invest in new recruits only to lose them within a 12-month period. A realisation that people are at the core of business success was my breakthrough moment. I became acutely aware that the right people in the right roles with the right leadership is the key to keeping them. I increased the average length of service of staff to six years in an industry that averages eight months for a typical consultant role. What I learnt translates into any business in any profession.

Recruit the right people

First and foremost, recruiting people is not easy, and picking the right person is even harder. I have done this every day in the recruitment industry for over 13 years and advise clients on how to do it better. Finding and recruiting the right people is an ongoing battle for most business owners. The key is to look beyond what’s on paper and what’s technically being said at the interview, and hire for culture and motivational fit. Forget experience and length of service in a similar role—find out what motivates them, what their values are, what they want to achieve long-term and where the best culture that they have worked in has been. Recruiting on competencies, attitude and culture are mandatory for long-term fit and retention, and far outweigh years of experience on a resume.

Believe in people

The best approach you can take as a leader is to assume that people want to perform at their best. Most people come to work to do a good job—they want to perform and succeed. As a leader you need to relate to them as a top performer, don’t expect anything less. This belief speaks volumes, builds trust, delivers results and ultimately keeps top talent on your team.

Empower others

For most business owners, you have created the business, know the ins and outs of how things are done and you probably enjoy being in control. However,  “control freaks” don’t retain top talent; they can often drive it away. Being the leader doesn’t mean making all the decisions and having an ‘I know best’ attitude. Letting go, trusting others to achieve, and supporting this learning curve will go a long way to increasing length of service.


In my business I gave people the tools and freedom to get on with the job. It’s critical to be clear on the outcomes and timeframes, but then get out of the way. People want to achieve their own goals without having to work within rigid and structured environments. Flexibility in approach, hours, and blending home and work situations instantly motivates top performers.


People want feedback—they want to know what they are doing well, so they can keep doing it. They want to know what they are not doing well, so they can stop doing it. Those thirsty for greater success and reward will want to know what they can start doing to perform at a higher level. As a leader, it is your job to recognise top performance and reinforce it, so it happens again. On the flip side, when you observe behaviour that is inconsistent, giving this feedback instantly (with good intent) will push people outside their comfort zones, which is necessary for changes in behaviour.

Professional development

Investing in your people is one of the best investments you can make. Hiring an external external coach or mentor  for an individual is a reward that can have incredible effects, such as increased performance and confidence. Paying a professional to just listen or be an external confidante is also a great way to invest upfront in new talent and prevent staff turnover. This goes a long way to reducing unnecessary replacement and re-recruitment costs, as well as increasing engagement levels and ultimately assisting in retaining key people.

Tools of the trade

It may seem a little light or trivial, but having the right tools of the trade and the right support systems in place are critical in keeping staff happy. A candidate once told me she left a job because she was promised a company car and after eight weeks of using her own car, paying for parking and petrol, she gave up on the false promise and decided to move on. Tools such as iPhones, car parks, admin support, remote access, and laptops, are now seen as essential for a lot of roles—get it right from day one to avoid unnecessary ‘misunderstandings’.


The first 90 days is an important time period for a new recruit in determining whether they stay long-term with an organisation, and day one in particular plays a key role. Who is there to greet them? Is their desk set up, are their business cards ready and is there a welcome message from the CEO? Don’t spend weeks going through a recruitment process to then spend no effort at all on the induction. This is a once-only opportunity to create a lasting impression and increase employee attachment and engagement from the first day.

Invest in your own leadership skills

A leader that is continuously learning and investing in their own professional development is more inspiring to be around. We can never know it all and we can always improve. Being authentic and transparent with your team about your own development and desire to improve will have a flow-on effect.

You can’t win them all

As much as you want all top performers to stay, sometimes it just doesn’t turn out that way no matter how hard you try and what you implement. A partner gets a transfer, a headhunter offers something an employee can’t refuse—it happens. In these circumstances all you can do is give them the best offer you have available and then wish them well if it doesn’t fall your way.

How can you retain top talent? It’s not just about money and perks, such as days off for birthdays and free yoga classes—although they’re nice and staff will appreciate them, that isn’t what gets them to stick around long-term. It’s two things in my experience—leadership and culture.

Become a better leader, have great systems and an inspiring culture. Only then can you attract the top talent that will stay.


This article has been written for Australian Physiotherapy Association’s monthly magazine “Business in Practice”.  

Nicole Underwood understands what it takes to create, build and grow a successful business. The essential ingredient is recruiting, engaging and retaining people. Great people. Top talent. High performers. As a previous finalist in the prestigious Telstra Business Women Awards, a regular blogger and entrepreneur, Nicole works with organisations to improve results through hiring and keeping the right people. www.nicoleunderwood.com.au