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Posted by on Jan 31, 2012 in Business, Inspirational, Leadership | 28 comments

Lead Like All Your Employees Are Volunteers

The other day I read an article about a well-known company anticipating a big competitive problem: huge attrition when its first employees are vested for their stock options, four years after their hire date. The CEO expects to hemorrhage talent, many of which he expects to be snapped up by his competitors. His question, asked mostly of himself, is, “Why should we train our competition’s talent force?”

Really? That got me to thinking.

CEO, I’m writing to you. How often have you thought the same thing? Maybe I should rephrase that: How often in a week do you think the same thing?

Here’s what I think. I think that if you have four years with someone of talent and they aren’t dying to stay onboard after all that time, that you deserve to lose them! My God, what were you doing all that time?

Most companies are not startups, and even among those that are, most will not have IPOs that make the founding talent rich. Most companies just have employees, which it pays. So this vesting period is often not an issue. Instead, talent is poached by recruiters or social networks or, heck, talent takes the initiative to find something better. This happens all year long, every year.

Guess what folks? As the economy picks up, this process will speed up.

Money will always be a factor for some people, and no matter what you try, some of your most talented performers will leave for a (financially) better offer. You can probably give someone a 20% bump in pay to keep them; you most likely cannot offer them IPO riches a second time.

But for most of us, money only starts the conversation. It gets our attention, yes. Offer me too little, I’ll take that as a slap in the face, or at best that you aren’t serious. You won’t get that first interview.

But there are so many other, much more important reasons to want to work for a company, and even more to stay for one that we’ve grown to love!

CEOs, team leaders, and everyone in between: if your people don’t love your company after four years of employment (or four months, or four quarters…), that’s all on you.

Do you have the pick of the employment litter? Are your best people dying to stay on board? If not, it isn’t that they’re ungrateful, and it isn’t that your competitors are luring them away. It’s that you suck as a leader.

Act as if every single employee is a volunteer. Because you know what? In a fundamental way, they are.

Image courtesy of SJ White

Ted Coiné

Ted Coiné

Keynote speaker. Author of A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive. Three-time CEO. Chairman and Founder of Switch and Shift. Ted Coiné is one of the most influential business experts on the Web, top-ranked by Forbes, Inc., SAP Business Innovation, and Huffington Post for his leadership, customer experience, and social media influence. Ted consults with owners, CEOs and boards of directors on making their companies more competitive by making them more human-focused. He and his family live in Naples, Florida.

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  • BillyKirsch

    What a great way to look at the challenge of engagement. To frame this as a view; that our employees are volunteers and then see if they’ll want to stay. I’m going to use this call to action with my clients. Thanks Ted!

    • tedcoine

      @BillyKirsch That’s exactly why I write, Billy! Thanks for the feedback.

  • Peterborner

    Shawn, good observation. Yesterday I wrote an article about Motivation and retention strategies that points to the four key drivers that motivate employees. It absolutely Aligns to your point of view. I’d be delighted if you read my post ( and commented.

    • tedcoine

      @Peterborner Hi Peter, I enjoyed your post. I’ll drop back in later to comment on it. Thanks for sharing!

      • Peterborner

        @tedcoine Thank you, much appreciated.

      • Peterborner

        @tedcoine Oh yes… Apologies for getting you and Shawn mixed up… I followed one of his tweets to get here!

        • tedcoine

          @Peterborner Understood. No worries at all!

  • Britany_Wallace

    Fabulous concept! I never thought of things this way, but you are correct: in a way, employees are volunteers. There are always opportunities to search elsewhere for employment, even if they are unfavorable.

    Leaders and employees alike must realize that there is a fit to be had even on a personal level. If that fit is not matched somewhat realistically, there will be trouble. I posted an article a few weeks ago about Passion for Work versus Passion for Life and how they can be the same thing, but sometimes they need to be the same thing. Likewise, sometimes they most certainly cannot be the same thing for functionality purposes.

    Thank you for bringing up this important point of discussion and perspective.

    • tedcoine

      @Britany_Wallace Thanks Brittany. I think most people have passion for something in their lives – this passion can be tapped for work, if the boss is a talented enough leader. Further, most new employees have plenty of drive to throw themselves into their work and exceed expectations. How quickly this drives fizzles is a direct result of a drag on the spirit by a lackluster or downright negative culture – which can be traced back to the leadership. (Hmn… I feel a new post coming on ;)

  • ken_gonzalez

    The best thing that ever happened to me in business was working in a management role in a volunteer organization. Once you can lead there, you can lead anywhere!

    • tedcoine

      @ken_gonzalez Ken, I agree completely! I thought I was a pretty capable leader till my sojourn into nonprofit life. The lessons I learned in two years were more instructive than the score I’d had leading in business.

  • Adi Gaskell

    I’ve written a few pieces lately on the management lessons we can all learn from the open source industry (ask if you’d like to read them). All of their ‘employees’ are volunteers, yet they manage to produce incredibly complex yet reliable products.

  • alankay1

    Interestingly, I’m working with a mid-size client organization that has both staff and volunteers. The new strategic plan is nearing completion and we’re continuing to get input from all front line people. What interests me is that the volunteers are writing their own strategic plan (leads to some interesting governance questions!).

    Maybe your CEO might want think, ‘If my staff were volunteers’, what strategy would they write for them selves?’

    Incidentally, Bersin Assoc estimates that as much as 40% of the US workforce is currently on a contingent basis. What does that say about the need for a clearer strategy on the organization’s workers?

    • tedcoine

      @alankay1 Those are some thorny wrinkles to this question, for sure! Regarding the contingent issue: I see a trend toward more and more of this, until perhaps one day the very concept of employment as we understand it is as archaic as candle power and horse drawn carriage. The world will be a very different place if/when this comes about, of course, perhaps with more fluidity than many are comfortable with.

      In any event, the days of lifetime employment are at least one, if not two generations in our past already. But this cuts both ways. Employees and employers both need to remain attractive to each other if success is to be enjoyed by either.

  • GeeklessTech

    Do most companies really care about their employees? Really? Unfortunately I don’t find the words of the CEO surprising at all. Most often it’s lack of appreciation. There is always a group in the Club, generally C level, but perhaps a layer below in larger organizations. Everyone else is expendable, and that’s the mindset. In my sales career I don’t recall ever having the same commission plan twice. Even if a small percentage blowout the plan, you can bet the ranch that will be tempered the following year. Corporations are generally poor at rewarding. This has really been exemplified over the last four years as corporations have held the upper hand with the poor economy. Less choices for individuals, even the most talented, leaves the employer empowered to not give anything above the norm it that. It’s flawed logic and myopic.

    • tedcoine

      @GeeklessTech It is indeed flawed logic and myopic. If the economy heats up fast, expect to hear a giant sucking sound as talent flees unenlightened leadership in droves. If it continues to revive gradually, instead, then this will still play out, just in slow motion.

      I agree with you, most companies today are still run by leaders with a 20th-century mindset like what you describe. But not all. My role is to find and describe those that do it right, as well as to hold up the rest as object lessons.

  • DavidLapin

    Great blog Ted. Frankly I’m concerned we may have created an economy that doesn’t need that many jobs anymore to flourish. In this case it will take many years before talent – other than the exceptional few – will have many better options. So then the challenge might be how to keep talent that has few other options, feeling engaged, passionate and committed. The call to action then would be: your emoyees are trapped. They need the job. Still, treat them as free people who have many choices!

    David Lapin
    Author: Lead By Greatness

  • DavidLapin

    Great blog Ted. Frankly I’m concerned we may have created an economy that doesn’t need that many jobs anymore to flourish. In this case it will take many years before talent – other than the exceptional few – will have many better options. So then the challenge might be how to keep talent that has few other options, feeling engaged, passionate and committed. The call to action then would be: your emoyees are trapped. They need the job. Still, treat them as free people who have many choices!

    David Lapin

    Author: Lead By Greatness

  • BruceSallan1

    Wisdom, pure and simple…well said, #16…Ted, you get it. Why don’t others realize we ALL want to be treated with respect and maybe a little “attaboy” now and then? Will you please speak to my boss about this: my wife!

    • tedcoine

      @BruceSallan1 LOL – Bruce, when I want Jane to get a hint, I send her a link to my comment on whatever blog. My latest success? I asked her for a puppy for my birthday, and she came through for me!

  • philip1

    Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff that great companies are made of! In the past I’ve worked for people who just didn’t get it, they’ve got customers, cash flow and a profit margin, but they don’t have the eyes to see that what really matters for the long term is building a community. A community of people is going to return success that matters.

  • qubehrm

    Interesting points are mentioned in the above post. I found this post very interesting. Indeed i agree with all point you mentioned above to treat our employes like volunteers. We all hungry for respect in return we should do the same in way boss and staff can work together and be successful. Thanks for this useful post.

  • Steve Borek

    The volunteer concept is a good one.

    I think if leaders spent more time understanding the values of their constituents they’d tap into what really drives their team intrinsically.

    Take care of your people and they’ll be happier and want to stay. They’ll take care of your customer, which drives higher revenue. I wrote a post this weekend on this very topic.

  • Noah Lomax

    I’m seeing both sides of this coin in my current position. I am in charge of student development, so most of my “staff” is comprised of 16 teams of volunteers student leaders. I’ve learned what it takes to develop leaders who want to stick around, and regularly have former students call and talk about opportunities to work for me. On the flip side, I’m in the market looking for a job where I will be growing and developed.

    Great stuff!

  • Debbie

    So VERY true. I learned this valuable lesson from a great man I worked for during the first Oil Embargo. He told his employees he could not pay them, and they decided unanimously to work for no pay, yes, NO PAY, until they could pull out of the crisis together!! What a great leader he was, the late great Bill Jones, Bill Jones Dodge City, Augusta GA (look him up!) Also, my stepfather! I loved him, too!

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  • Margy Bresslour

    It’s disheartening to know that good employees leave organizations because they don’t feel they are valued and appreciated. It’s unfortunate for all concerned. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number one reason people leave their jobs is because they “do not feel appreciated.” Companies would be so much more productive if they had employees who loved working there. Recognizing the huge benefits that come from receiving appreciation, recognition and gratitude, I left my job to start a new company, Moving Messages, that focuses exclusively on encouraging expressions of appreciation. I’d be delighted if you’d visit my website ( I love getting feedback.