Donna Rae Smith: Sealing talent pipeline leakage Featured

9:33am EDT November 1, 2011
Donna Rae Smith: Sealing talent pipeline leakage

In the report “Pipeline’s Broken Promise,” Brenda C. Barnes, then the chairman and CEO of Sara Lee Corp. says: “As hard as companies work to obtain top talent, they should work equally as hard to retain top talent. As corporate leaders, we must listen to the growing needs of our greatest assets, our employees. This means creating a nurturing environment that continuously develops diverse talent at all levels of the organization.”

Barnes’ comments were made in light of a recent Catalyst report on how the corporate pipeline has failed women. I believe her comments hold true not only for women but for minorities and organizations as a whole.

Not long ago, it was commonplace to proudly work for one company for a lifetime. But unlike our parents’ generation, employees now expect more than a paycheck in order to stay in their jobs. They want to know that their contributions are valued. They want work environments that accommodate their lives and give them opportunities to learn and advance. If you don’t offer these things, they’ll find an employer who will. We’re on the verge of a talent war, and complacency will be the hallmark of those companies on the losing side. In other words, recruiting top talent isn’t enough. You need to give them reasons to stay.

Yet retaining diverse, qualified employees and promoting them up the company ranks doesn’t happen overnight. Here are some tips to get you started.

Take a long, hard look in the mirror

Begin by asking yourself whether you’re contributing to the problem. How are decisions being made about promotions or new assignments in your organization? Chances are there are organizational barriers and roadblocks in place that are inhibiting diversity in senior management positions. Though they may not be openly stated, these barriers often come from leadership in the form of beliefs about family roles, child care, capability perceptions, other gender or race biases and negative attitudes based on past experiences. If you’ve ever had a thought such as, “That job would involve too much travel for a working mother,” then this applies to you.

Reward those who sponsor strong leaders

Not to be confused with mentoring, sponsoring means actively helping talented staff rise through the ranks — going to bat for them when needed, shepherding them, lobbying on their behalf to ensure that they receive deserved opportunities. Sponsorship is a key factor in ensuring that bright leaders ascend the ranks. Send the message that you’re serious about sponsorship by rewarding senior leaders who effectively act as sponsors.

Stay ahead of the talent curve

Don’t rely on employees to nominate themselves for leadership opportunities. While some employees will more than gladly engage in self-promotion, they won’t necessarily be the ones who are most qualified. Women and minorities may be less inclined to put themselves forward, not because they don’t want the opportunities but because they haven’t developed mentors or sponsors at the executive level. To ensure that you’re cultivating the most talented group of leaders, develop a system to identify the key competencies required of executive-level positions and fairly evaluate staff.

Cross train

Winning athletes do it, and you should, too. Build your strengths across the spectrum. Make sure that talented staff rotates through the organization, developing an understanding of key functions. It’s particularly crucial to ensure that women have profit and loss responsibilities if they’re to advance to executive positions.

Be flexible

We’ve witnessed these past few years an increasingly overburdened work force, with people routinely assuming the responsibilities of multiple positions and technology enabling (and demanding) that people work at any hour from anywhere. The risk of burnout is higher than ever. Environments that promote a work-life balance are essential to keeping employees engaged. Flexible environments that allow employees to determine how and where they best perform are going to outpace more rigid workplaces.

Increasingly, competitive, prospering organizations will be marked by their diversity, their flexibility and the awareness that thriving employees lead to greater innovation and achievement. If you think you can’t afford to invest the time in creating a diverse working environment, think again. You can’t afford not to.

Donna Rae Smith is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a behavioral strategy company that teaches leaders to be masters of change. For more than two decades, she and the Bright Side team have been recognized as innovators in organizational and leadership development and the key partner to more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. Donna Rae is a guest leadership blogger for Smart Business and the author of two leadership books, Building Your Bright Side and The Power of Building your Bright Side. For more information, please visit or contact Donna Rae at