Much has been said about Pelé since he passed away in December 2022. Something intrigues me enormously: how did his club manage to retain him for 18 years? Replacing top talents is extremely costly and disruptive for any organization, so every improvement in employee retention counts. What can we learn from Pelé’s story?

Pelé: 18 years at his peak in a middle-of-the-road club.

Pelé, the only player to have won 3 world cups (in 1958, 1962, and 1970) and record goal scorer, has been dubbed “Player of the century” for his immense talent, amazing vision of the game, and his dedication to hard work. Johan Cruyff called him “the only footballer who surpassed the boundaries of logic.”

With that kind of resume, Pelé could have played anywhere he wanted to. And yet he played 18 years for Santos FC, starting in 1956, right before his first world cup.

To be clear: Santos wasn’t the most glamorous or richest club in Brazil. When Pelé joined the club, it was a David against two Goliaths: Santos had only won 2 state championships in 20 years – in the same period, the Corinthians won 7 times and Sao Paulo 6 times. Santos FC didn’t even have a strong track record of retaining top talents: shortly after they first became state champions, many of their key players left.

And yet they managed to retain the world’s best player for 18 years and, with him, the soccer team that was considered the best in the world in the 1960s. This makes me think that, if Santos FC could retain such great talents, any business in the world can do it too – regardless of their size.

Money as the #1 talent retention driver?

One might think that money is the #1 driver of retention. I couldn’t find public information on Pelé’s salary, but money probably wasn’t Santos FC’s main competitive advantage: Santos was a small coastal town of less than 300,000 inhabitants (compared to more than 3 million in Sao Paulo at that time), with a stadium of modest dimensions with only half the crowd (and probably half the ticketing revenue) of its larger rivals in Sao Paulo. It is fair to assume that Pelé and his teammates would have made more money in a larger Brazilian club in a bigger city.

Research indicates that 80%+ of managers believe that employees leave for money. The truth is: less than 15% leave for financial reasons. Other factors are much more prevalent – and you can act on these preemptively.

Pelé explained: “I had several proposals to play in Europe. For Real Madrid, for AC Milan, for Bayern Munich. I was very happy at my team, Santos.”

How do you create this “happiness” that makes top talents stay?

Practically speaking: what can you start doing today to retain top talents?

Below are 5 practical initiatives that you can start this week to increase top talent retention.

1. Gain insights into your top talents.

Invest as much time and energy in understanding your top talents as you do to retain your top customers. Schedule individual “reverse reviews” (like an annual review, but the other way around: ask your employee to review the company). The purpose of this conversation is for you to understand:

  • What they appreciate / don’t appreciate in their job. How they can tweak their job to do a little bit more of the part of the jobs they love.
  • What you can do to make their life easier. Which frustrations can you remove (often these are things that slow them down – by taking action you make your top talents happier, while making your company more efficient).
  • Their development needs.
2. Understand their long-term career/life goals and how you can help achieve them.

Clarifying career goals is not easy, and helping your top talents do this can be extremely helpful to them – and to you. One way to approach this is the Flash Forward exercise:

  • “Imagine that we are in 2123. You are on your deathbed, surrounded by your loved ones. You could not have dreamed of a better life: you lived a life beyond all your expectations.
  • One of your great-grandchildren steps forward and asks you: “Grandpa/grandma, what have you accomplished in your life?” As you respond you realize how fulfilling your life has been.”
  • Ask your team two questions:
    • How have you answered the child’s question?
    • How has this company helped you accomplish these things?
  • Give each team member 10 minutes to prepare the questions individually, and 2 minutes to share their response.
3. Invest in growing their superpower.

Take a few minutes to do the following exercise:

  • Make a list of your top talents.
  • For each of them, identify their “superpower”: what is their native genius? What do they do much better than others (and than you), effortlessly?
  • How can you help them develop their unique strength? Which assignment(s) can you give them so your company can better leverage their strengths?
4. Manage your time and avoid the C-player trap.
  • Add an additional column to the list above, and assess how much time you spend weekly with each of your top talents.
  • Make a list of your C-players (ie low-performing employees who don’t live by your company values). Assess the time you spend with each of them weekly.
  • Check whether you have fallen into the C-player trap: Most managers spend more time with C-players than with their best employees – often due to disciplinary reasons or requirements to address C-player performance. This is an issue for two reasons:
    • The fundamental reason your best employees leave your company is your tolerance of C-players.
    • A-players require just as much time and attention as C-players. If they don’t get it, at some point they will find it in a different company.
  • Decide what you will do differently to spend less time with your C-players, and more time with your A-players.
5. Invest in your culture.

This will help top talents feel connected to something bigger than themselves, and provide decision-making discipline. To do this bring your core purpose and core values to life and keep them top of mind by turning them into real-life stories:

  • Take 5 minutes in your weekly staff meeting to share stories, eg:
    • Ask employees to share an example of a colleague excelling at a core value the prior week.
    • Ask each attendant one example of a core value they excelled at the prior day, and what they did.
    • Similarly: ask everybody an example of a core value they did not live by the prior day, and what happened.
  • Recruit based on your core values. Retention starts at recruiting. When you don’t specifically recruit based on your core values, you end up with competent people who don’t fit your culture – which starts a vicious circle of bad atmosphere and top talents leaving.

As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Sometimes their roadblocks include not having the right people in the right seats, and losing their top talents. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.

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“My company has lots of potential, but I just feel my employees are not engaged. If I don’t push, nothing seems to happen. I’m working night and day and we’re still missing 40% of our targets. I once dreamed of being a firefighter, I guess that dream has come true. All I do is put out fires, I have no time to focus on my business.”

Sound familiar? CEOs and leadership teams can change this picture, it’s all about accountability. Creating a fierce culture of accountability starts with the CEO and leadership team.

Why is accountability important?

Accountability is about owning a problem. You want employees to behave as if they own the piece of business that they are running. When you are accountable for a specific result, you will do whatever it takes to achieve it – and you would like your team to perform this way as well.

Carlos Brito, the CEO of brewing company AB Inbev, summarizes his views on accountability in these words: “We always compare that to a rental car: you drive a rental car in a different way than your own car. With a rental car someone else will live with the consequences of your driving. With your car, you know that it will be yours the next days, months, and years, and you know that you will be living with the consequences of your driving. Employees who behave like owners are here for the long term, and they will live with the consequences of their decisions – good or bad – and that builds a great company.”

Why am I having accountability issues?

Accountability issues are very common among growing companies. When you founded your company, you were personally accountable for everything. As your company grew you started delegating the responsibilities for some results – e.g. production, customer service, or sales. However, you may not have created the communication channels required to hold your teams accountable. Why would you? You didn’t need any of this yourself, and yet you grew your business successfully. Why would these smart managers need anything different?

For one, your employees are not you. If they were, they would not be working for you: they would start their own business. Second, your company is now more complex than we you started: it has more people involved, and all these people now need to be on the same page. Third, when you started your company with a few employees, you could be on top of each of them and had short communication lines: you knew what everybody was doing, all the time. Now that your company has more employees it is impossible for you to manage them the same way: this would soak up all your time.  This is exactly why you need to put a system in place that will achieve what you want (ie create accountability), without you spending all your time on it.

In the book “Creating a Culture of Accountability” Gravitas Impact business coach Mark Green describes ways to increase your team’s accountability. This article outlines five of them

1. Lead by example

Like many aspects related to company culture, accountability starts with you and your leadership team. In order to create a culture of accountability you have to model the behaviors that you want to see in your organization. When it comes to accountability the rule is simple: when you make a commitment as a leader, you have to keep it. If you don’t, why should anyone else be interested in doing so? You can’t complain that employees miss their deadlines if you are occasionally late as well. As a CEO “all eyes and ears within your business are focused on you. What you say and what you do are invisibly and constantly observed, scrutinized and evaluated as your managers and employees are looking for clues as to how they should behave,” explains Mark Green.

Leading by example is not only about you sticking to your commitments, but also about your expectations from your team – and your behavior when your managers don’t meet your expectations. If your team members notice that there are no consequences for missing targets, why would they try their best? Similarly, if you tolerate one of your team members to produce poor results, why would other team members feel pressured to produce quality? When you hold your team to a higher standards, you are sending a strong signal across the organization.

2. Have the right people on the right seat

Without the right people on the right seat, nothing of what you can do will significantly increase accountability. The key question is: would you enthusiastically rehire everybody on your team? I advise my clients to assess employees on two dimensions; performance and adherence to company values. You will find more information on how to use this tool in this article.

Once you have the right people on your team you need to clarify their area of accountability. This is less obvious than it looks. The key question is: Who is accountable for each of the key functions in your company? As Mark Green explains “the exercise often reveals that there isn’t a single individual accountable for each function. When more than one person is “accountable”, nobody is accountable. It is easy to make assumptions that things will get done, but when there is not a designated person to account for a particular result, chances are, it is not going to happen. In this kind of environment, it is also easy to point fingers – Bob thought Mary would handle it, and vice versa. Other times, you’ll discover that a particular role hasn’t been filled by anyone at all; it is just implied that it will somehow be handled. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t!”

3. Clarify priorities

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” wrote best-selling author Stephen Covey. “Individuals or organizations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance,” says Verne Harnish in his book “Scaling Up.” Focus on a small number of priorities that will have the biggest impact on your goals, make sure that everyone on your leadership team is aligned on them – and communicate them broadly.

When employees understand where your organization is going and which role they play in it, they work less selfishly and they tend to make better business decisions on behalf of the company – simply because they can see the impact of their decisions and how they impact overall results.

4. Define clear action plans and metrics

Once you have identified who on the leadership team is accountable for each function and what your top priorities are, the next step is for each of your leaders to answer Mark Green’s key question: “What are the 3 most important results the company expects you deliver in exchange for paying your salary – and how should these results be measured? This step determines the results and metrics for each of your leadership functions. As we all know, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you want to increase the speed and quality of a particular service you offer, you should establish specific metrics to gauge those factors and identify metrics and targets for them. You may determine if you reach or surpass a target for three months in a row, you have achieved that objective.” Pick specific metrics, make sure that your leadership team is on the same page and that everybody aims for the clearly defined results – so that the rest of your organization can follow your lead.

Similarly, once you have defined top quarterly priorities, the question becomes: what do you and your team need to do in each of the next 13 weeks in order to achieve priorities? There are only 13 weeks in a quarter – if you do NOT view your quarter as a 13-week race, you will lose weeks and time which you will NOT get back. A weekly plan clarifies what can be expected every week, in order to meet expectations at the end of the quarter. It also makes it much easier for your leadership team to hold people accountable to their own 13-week plan.

5. Establish a metronome-like meeting rhythm

Just as a metronome calls time and sets tempo in a musical performance, so do a small set of consistently executed meetings to hold you and your team accountable, and keep everyone on the same page. The essential regular meetings are:

  • Daily huddles (no more than 10 to 15 minutes) to evaluate progress on the very short-term priorities and identify any blocking issues.
  • Weekly huddles (no more than 90 minutes) to review the status of the 13-week plan and course-correct if needed.
  • Monthly and quarterly meetings to review progress on the priorities, take corrective actions when needed, and identify new priorities for the upcoming quarter.

I often notice that the most impactful meetings to drive accountability are the daily and weekly huddles: they create peer pressure and hence take the heat off your shoulders as the leader. They also improve communication: You won’t need to have the same water-cooler conversation three of four times, as is the case when you rely on chance hallway meetings for communication. And finally they enable collective intelligence to solve problems.

Conclusion

In the end, how much difference do these tools make on accountability? Pretty big, as this example from another Gravitas Impact business coach, Glen Dall, demonstrates in Mark Green’s book “Creating a Culture of Accountability”: “I worked with the CEO of a multi-location dental practice. The CEO had started with one practice that they grew very successfully – and then began expanding. At one point employee turnover rates increased to 200%. The leadership team would plan and set goals, but frequently failed to achieve them. The growth rate was declining. The CEO felt over-extended, frustrated and stressed.”

With the leadership team Glen Dall leveraged these tools to have the right people on the right seat, set priorities and targets, as well as establish a proven system to follow up on them. The result? “After our first 6 months of working together, the CEO told me, “You should be proud of how far you’ve brought the team. I feel that we have accomplished more in the past 6 months than we were able in the last 7 years.” That is the power of accountability.”

As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Often their roadblocks include a lack of accountability: they have no system in place to regularly follow up on their team’s many commitments, or their teams don’t have clear priorities and metrics. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.

What about you? How accountable is your team? How has Covid impacted accountability? Over the past couple of years, how many quarters has your company reached and missed their targets? What were the consequences of hitting targets, and what were the consequences of missing them? Do you have clear metrics and regular meetings in place to follow up on each of your priorities?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.