Why They Stay: The Same Story

August 30, 2023

42 million employees will quit their jobs this year; Oliver Dalton of Alpine Trust in Anchorage, Alaska, Liam Harper of Quantum Financial Group in Fort Collins, Colorado, Sophia Bennett of Streamline Motors in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Noah Clarke of Unified Procurement Network in St. Paul, Minnesota will not be among them. Each of these young leaders were working in organizations in the throes of a generational leadership succession process. And each had determined to leave their organization as a result. Yet, on the threshold of their departures, they each changed their mind and committed to engage long-term, to be part of the succession journey and, in each case, to help drive that generational journey. Why? Why did they stay?

Sophia Bennett: Positive Culture

As VP of human resources for Streamline Motors, Sophia Bennett needed to fix the company’s abysmal 60% employee turnover. Her assignment seemed daunting, and doubly so because secretly Sophia expected to make herself one of the statistics: She planned to resign.

“We just couldn’t keep good people,” Sophia reflected. “With a 3.9% unemployment rate, team members could easily seek greener pastures. To win in this economy, we needed to become a very good place to work. We were not. Our pay and benefits were fine; our culture was toxic, and we drove away good people.”

The kicker came when Peter, sales manager in their Ford store, resigned. “Peter is young, but really good, and loyal. ‘Done,’ he told me flatly. ‘I can’t take this *&^%.’ Then he broke into tears. Seriously. He claimed he didn't want to go, but working here was giving him an ulcer. I knew at that moment our ship was sinking; I decided to leave too.”

But Peter’s resignation sounded an alarm. Seeing the gravity, CEO Andrew Hagstrom reached out to our team. Five years prior, we had helped Andrew execute a succession to Streamline’s fifth generation of family leadership. Now the very survival of their 120-year-old business seemed in jeopardy.

Herringshaw Group began guiding Streamline to activate an initiative training supervisors to become more coach-like (See The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stainer) rather than top-down bosses. The Corporate Leadership Council reports that highly engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave their companies than their disengaged counterparts. Gallup in turn found that “coached” employees engage far more than those who are merely “supervised.” Streamline Motors’ leaders dusted off their emotional intelligence and started reclaiming their culture.

HG also helped Streamline identify a single source of cultural erosion. Twelve months prior, they had hired an aging auto industry icon as COO. His “no-nonsense-profit-first” approach had earned behavior compliance but destroyed trust. Young employees in both salary and hourly positions had walked. Sophia described the COO as “... a kidney transplant from a bad DNA match; our immune system went off the rails!” Owning his hiring error, Andrew Mallow released the COO and empowered HR to institute “culture first” initiatives. Andrew visited all Streamline locations and apologized to team members for compromising values. The tide began to turn.

“I had urged that we save the culture, but it took an outside voice like Herringshaw Group – along with key people leaving – to trigger action. When Andrew responded to Herringshaw Group’s challenge with humility, I knew I could stay and fight with him.”

Within six months, Streamline has improved retention by 20%. Takeaway: A commitment to positive culture wins loyalty from young leaders like Sophia – and Peter, who in the course of the re-boot changed his mind and decided to stay at Streamline Motors. He is now general manager at their Ford location.

[Note: Herringshaw Group builds much of its process on research being done by the University of Michigan’s Positive Organization Scholarship Movement. Relevant research from Kim Cameron, Robert Quinn, Gretchen Spreitzer, and Arch Archura’s work on employee voice and retention provide significant data on the correlation between positive practices and engagement, retention, profitability and so on. Communication, relationships, meaning and climate, the four key areas of positive culture need to be attended to in our multi-generational operating system.  Our relational coaching process affords this opportunity efficiently and effectively.]

Noah Clarke: Proactive Collaboration

“We’re the house that Dave built,” explained Noah Clarke, Chief Operating Officer of Unified Procurement Network. “Few would guess given we’re based in rural Minnesota, but we’re a national player in cooperative purchasing for commercial enterprises and government agencies that need to do business. We’re the bridge, and we’ll do four billion dollars this year. Dave Handy built Unified Procurement Network on handshakes and hunches scribbled on used envelopes. Now Dave is retiring and I’m the guy. But this transition almost went up in smoke.”

Noah, 36, had been recruited while serving as a university vice president. Nine months into the two-year process, Noah knew the project was doomed and that he’d made a mistake leaving higher education.

“I am not Dave Handy. I don’t lead his way. I share Dave’s values to serve and do great things, but we have to change how we deliver on those values. The future is about analytics that can’t be worked on a slide rule. We need smart-aleck kids in here, and we have to work as a team. Dave created Unified Procurement Network almost by himself. He had staff, but they worked for him, not with him. I collaborate and trust metrics. But leveraging technology and a collaborative structure seemed heresy for Dave, and he let it be known, from the bleachers, that he didn’t agree with our new approach.”

Facing this resistance, Noah began to question his commitment. “People sensed my disengagement,” Noah said. “They could smell sinking morale. Two of my best contract managers quit. Those young women were killing it, but they couldn’t stomach two years of mudslinging while Dave crawled toward his retirement.”

“Turnover like that costs us money and energy. It took 13 weeks to fill those positions, then we had to train, which around here takes patience. Managers apprenticing newbies sacrifice their own job performance. We know the ripple effect of someone quitting costs us between 30% and 400% of their financial package. Ouch.”

“But, I didn’t leave. Before walking, I took a shot, deciding I’d draw a line and fight one battle. That one thing was instituting Herringshaw Group's collaborative process for all prime decisions. If we could see Unified Procurement Network as a team sport, other walls would fall eventually.”

“Breaking the top-down monopoly and distributing actual authority and responsibility turned the tide. Collaboration is grueling, emotional, and confusing – which is why Dave never had the patience. But his singular genius was leaving the building and we needed a new collective genius to fill that vacuum. It worked. Winning collaboration is why I stayed. My team is staying too, and word is getting out. Some really good people are applying for our job openings.”

[Check out An Everyone Culture published by Harvard Press for the adult learning theory and coaching network approach undergirding what we do. In a manufacturing client, we were able to see 760+ individuals participate in our coaching groups] 

Oliver Dalton: Impactful Purpose

Oliver Dalton spends July stalking steelhead and hopping his float plane from one Alaskan lake to another. The rest of the year, Oliver serves as president and CEO of Alpine Trust, one of the most successful “niche” financial management companies in America.

But Oliver's story almost had a very different plot arc.

Alpine Trust was founded in the 1970s by Doug Dalton, Oliver's father, a New York financial advisor. While vacationing in Alaska, Doug eyed a unique opportunity: with a few statutory adjustments, Alaska could become a national destination for trust investment. Armed with this insight, Doug worked with the Alaska legislature to produce what became the Alaska Trust Act, the innovative foundation for an entirely new industry in the State and the anchor for his own Alpine Trust.

In 2014, Doug began to consider the future and asked Oliver to consider leadership. Oliver had worked in the firm since college, had completed his MBA, and showed keen aptitude for the technical and relational sides of their business. Oliver was particularly skilled at managing volatile relationships that can arise inside families they serve.

But Oliver did not like his job. He was good, but had no peace of mind. As plans progressed for succession, Oliver grew increasingly anxious.

Herringshaw Group began working with Oliver at the peak of his angst. Beginning with a process they now call “Deep Dive,” they helped Oliver identify his reticence: a misalignment between his work and the core motivations driving him.

“I honor the legacy my father built, but I don’t want his life. I can’t lead as he leads and I don’t share his motivations. No one works harder than I do, but I’m driven by impact, not mere profit. I’d never seen a business like the one I wanted Alpine to become, so I’d decided I didn’t belong in this industry.”

“But Herringshaw Group helped me do some detective work first. With my father’s help, I combed through Alpine’s history to find pivot points demonstrating values common to mine. I saw that Alpine had invented new ways to do trusts; innovation is our DNA. I simply wanted another innovation built on our creative genetics. Herringshaw Group helped me articulate this and to build bridges from Doug’s generation to mine.” Oliver's decision to stay took several months to solidify, but eventually he found a conviction to commit.

“I came to see that our clients need the very process I worked through myself — to clearly articulate a motivational purpose. People with financial means can do amazing good. While Alpine stewards their resources wisely, we can also help shape their vision built on a clear purpose. Once I saw this, I actually got excited about staying, and I get up every morning driven to make this happen.”

Liam Harper:Transferred Competence

In 2013, James Harper announced his intention to retire as CEO of Quantum Financial Group, the debt collections firm he pioneered in 1976. James made this announcement hoping—though not knowing—that his son Liam would succeed him. Twelve months prior, James had lured Liam away from his private law practice to "give the business a try." That year had been rocky, with tensions between them erupting publicly. Their best employees had voiced concerns about an uncertain future; some had resigned ahead of the anticipated storm.

For James, the question was simple: Did Liam want to lead the company? If not, he would sell to one of the suitors pounding on his door. For Liam, the question was more complex, though no less crucial: If he took the helm, would/could James prepare him and Quantum Financial Group for the transition? Or would Liam end up with a dump truck-load of stress as he struggled to lead a business he couldn’t understand?

James had done legal and financial preparations. He had established flow charts, job descriptions, and strategic plans, a family trust that reserved 51% of stock for Liam, should he remain. James had done vital work, but all on the logistics side of the succession ledger. The harder work of "wisdom transfer" still lay ahead.

Liam wanted a plan for personal development before committing. Our team offered that plan: their "audit, annex, advise" sequence. Once Liam and James grasped the principles and committed to work the process, Liam had the plan he needed to commit.

They began with "audit," helping James, the legacy leader, mine out his "unconscious competencies." Those who lead for decades rely on storehouses of "muscle memory wisdom" to make decisions. James knew the skills, relationships, and values necessary to steer his decisions, but he no longer "knew what he knew" and thus could not apprentice Liam. They worked with James to think through and document what he did, how he did it, and why: the true intangible assets of Quantum Financial Group.

Following this audit, we helped James relay these assets to Liam through an "annex" process where authority and responsibility were transferred in stages. Spheres closest to Liam’s competence would transfer first—in his case, legal and governmental compliance. Then spheres closest to those came next. That process continued until finally the spheres furthest from his original competence transferred last. With each sphere shift, James' role over that sphere transitioned from "lead" to "advise," where James could counsel, but not override decisions.

While the annex phases progressed, James and Liam instituted scheduled discussions solving live issues applying audit elements (history, values, relationships, and knowledge) to solve challenges. This process allowed James to help Liam learn the DNA in real time and rapidly accelerated his competence and his confidence.

Following this guided path, James and Liam met their two-year transition target.

[The Leadership Pipeline by Charran, Drotter et al. is an essential work on mining out the skills, values, and time allocation for every level of the organization]

Conclusion: They Stayed For Good Reason

Sophia, Noah, Oliver, and Liam are members of the 83-million-strong “millennial” generation. Like many of their age cohort they are confident, technically savvy, idealistic, relational, and eager to make an impact in the world. And like others their age they interact constantly with members of the 61-million-strong “boomers” generation.

Yet unlike many of their peers these four leaders have successfully navigated the maze of generational transition, committing to invest themselves in systems where “boomers” have held the reigns of power. Why did they choose to stay?

Sophia found a way to fight for and foster positive culture; that was the motivation she needed to secure her commitment to the organization. 

Noah wasn’t willing to compromise collaborative leadership. When he found a workable model for this challenging vision, he set his roots down. 

Oliver found a way to instigate impact in what he had imagined was merely-profit industry; when he did, he made that industry his life work.

Liam needed a way to grow his competency. Securing a system and access to his legacy leader gave him confidence he needed to commit.

Stay Connected

Join thousands receiving our newsletter, updates, resources, and special offers.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.