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Winning the talent war: How innovation attracts and retains employees

In the digital age, constant innovation and reinvention are keys to survival — not just fodder for the next quarterly earnings meeting.

With thousands of students graduating this spring, the job market will have no shortage of fresh talent. However, only 19% of college graduates say they are interested in working for a big company, according to a recent Accenture survey. In contrast, 44% of survey respondents say they want to work for a startup or small company.

While interest in big companies is up from 14% in 2016 — perhaps indicating a shifting mindset among the next generation of workers — it is still not the best news for large enterprises. In fact, millennials are expected to comprise nearly 75% of the workforce by 2025, with around 10,000 millennials turning 21 every day in the United States. The question is, why don’t college grads want to work for a large company? In my experience, young people often think big companies are slow and boring and most importantly aren’t committed to their employees, especially when it comes to investing in their interests, talents, and ability to innovate. Is this actually true? Or, is it a classic example of “perception becoming reality?”

Regardless of the answer, these findings are a wake-up call for any mid-size and large organization doing business in the digital age, where constant innovation and reinvention are keys to survival — not just fodder for the next quarterly earnings meeting.

In today’s fast-paced digital economy, innovation is crucial for both attracting new talent and retaining existing talent for sustainable success. So, what must big companies do to change perceptions, attract talent of all ages and backgrounds, and set themselves on the right course to innovate and thrive? Here are five ways.

1. Empower employees by bringing them into your innovation ecosystem

Forty-seven percent of Gen Xers and 42% of millennials say they would leave their current job for not only more money but also for a “more innovative environment.” Thus, it is vital to open innovation opportunities to all employees from across ranks, roles, and departments.

Do not make the mistake of limiting opportunities for innovation to the C-suite or a select few technologists. After all, innovation is not about technology — it’s always about people and for the people. If you are serious about creating a culture of innovation, encourage inclusion and diversity, whether that means gender, ethnicity, cultural or socio-economic backgrounds, education levels, or ages. Through numerous fresh perspectives, you’ll produce more valuable breakthroughs and powerful results that will keep your employees engaged.

2. Create transparency and connect employees to your corporate strategy

More employees, especially millennials, want to feel connected in their workplace. That means not only connecting them with their colleagues but also connecting them with the organization’s broader strategy. And, with just 40% of millennials feeling strongly connected to their company’s mission, this is a challenge that must be addressed sooner rather than later.

The answer lies in transparency — candidly communicating both the good and bad, successes and failures. Share key metrics after projects are implemented, highlight lessons learned and best practices, and keep stakeholders updated on your innovation progress. It is also beneficial to create a dedicated online community where all employees, regardless of their rank, can freely share their ideas and connect with mentors, advisors, and customers — all key elements in your innovation ecosystem. Such hyper-connected networks can encourage other employees to join in on the excitement (this is known as a network multiplier effect) and give you a platform for reinforcing your corporate innovation strategy.

3. Drive internal innovation disruption

Just like the ideas they incubate, your innovation programs should also be disruptive, cutting-edge, and have plenty of “cool things” for employees to leverage to bring their ideas to life. For example, Cisco has a series of “thingQbator” maker spaces where employees can experiment with technologies like robotics, drones, AI/machine learning, and more while participating in hands-on workshops and receiving personalized training and guidance.

Other vehicles for disruptive ideas include annual innovation competitions that mirror the real startup world and provide participants with funding, angel investors, and mentoring. We have a similar competition at Cisco, the Innovate Everywhere Challenge, which has captured the imagination and participation of thousands of employees worldwide. When possible, gamify to make innovation fun and engaging, providing an enticing reward, such as time off or a bonus. Statistics show that 91% of employees say gamification improves their work experience, making it another viable tactic for retaining staff and driving engagement.

4. Toot your innovation horn

If your company is perceived as innovative and cutting-edge, the easier it will be to win the war in attracting and retaining the best talent. You may have an exceptionally unique innovation program, but no one will know about it outside the company if you do not make every effort to promote it.

For instance, highlight your employees’ innovation accomplishments on social media and encourage them to amplify your messages on their own channels. Enlist PR to help raise visibility in the media. Or, encourage employees to become more involved in the community, especially on the local startup scene, where they can lend their voices to help others innovate by sharing their own experiences. These tactics are rewarding for everyone — employees, recruits, partners, and customers.

5. Avoid “innovation tourism”

Lastly, don’t make innovation a one-time ribbon-cutting event; innovation should be embedded into every aspect of your corporate strategy and culture. No one wants to work for a company that doesn’t appear to be continuously innovating and evolving — that is a recipe for going out of business. Along with internal/external programs, communities, promotions, and maker spaces, ignite ongoing dialog and discussions among employees, managers, and executives. This is an opportunity to encourage thinking, build bridges and identify new ways to solve challenges or fill any gaps employees see in your innovation initiatives.

With digital disruption threatening businesses’ livelihoods every day, it is up to companies to invest in their most valuable resource: their people. Unless you can attract and retain the right talent, you’ll find your organization coming up short in a highly competitive business climate. Remember, innovation is about people, not necessarily technology or individual solutions. Therefore, embrace innovation as a business differentiator. Weave it into every aspect of your corporate culture. Continuously amplify it as the central piece of your corporate strategy. As a result, employees, recruits, and prospects from all backgrounds will be more eager to join your side, armed with their best and brightest ideas.

This article originally appeared in HR Dive on May 31, 2018


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