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April 27, 2015 Other Voices

Hartford’s private, public sectors share talent retention challenge

Devi Mohanty

Finding top talent is a challenge. Retaining top talent is the challenge that comes after that. It is one of the toughest facing the public and private sectors right now, extending from government to nonprofits, and equally applicable to any Fortune 500 company.

But, perhaps, nowhere is it more important than in our public schools, where having a strong leader — and keeping them for the long term — can be the difference between a chronically low-performing school turning itself around or spinning its wheels, with a generation of children hanging in the balance. Right here in Hartford, 16 percent of school principals leave each year, better than the national average, but still too high given what's at stake.

All forward-looking leaders are worried about how to ensure more of the top-flight talent sticks around. Attrition costs are a double whammy to an organization — they rob the organization of accrued institutional knowledge and onboarding new folks from the outside almost always takes more time than we would like and need.

If you think that learning a new business environment is difficult (which it is, every day), then think about how hard it is to learn a new school community as a principal facing special needs across many language groups and community hardships. 

In education, it all starts with the great school principal, who is able to put forth the vision and at the same time define and inspire work on the details: managing the budget, creating systems to improve learning, promoting the school to families who have a choice, supporting overburdened staff, and building strategic partnerships, all while handling crises on a weekly or daily basis.

Make no mistake, the school-leader role that these principals sign up for in Hartford is like those business opportunities that have the cards stacked against them, with perhaps months of declining market share, a recent change in regulation, or maybe just a customer base that's grown tired of the product. The stakes in these situations are high and the probability of success is low. And those taking these jobs know it when they come in.

The specific role of a school leader is multi-faceted, starting with being a great educator, but then he or she also has to be a:

Marketer: market the services of the school to parents, the community as well as new teachers;

Trainer: develop teachers and administrative staff to be the next generation of leaders;

Trustworthy Partner: manage the tenuous relationship between teachers, politicians, and parents while keeping the interests of the students paramount.

Clearly, there are similarities in what leaders face and are expected to do that cut across both sectors.

In the private sector, the leaders in charge of businesses are meant to thrive and grow, in relation to the growth of their business. Often those with outstanding skills earn an opportunity to do even more in the company they are in. Yet leaders who have accomplished something relatively quickly — especially in challenging circumstances — become extremely marketable, and keeping them becomes a challenge. That is the challenge for a school district like Hartford.

Achieve Hartford! recently released a publication looking at the challenges facing the Hartford school district, with specific suggestions for how to retain top school leaders. I submit that the best methods for retaining strong leaders in schools may also apply to the private sector. Achieve Hartford! recommends:

1. Recognizing gap areas and delivering specific training and development opportunities to help build skills, while at the same time recognizing that leaders can't be expected to be experts in everything;

2. Allocating resources in a way that correlates to the level of challenge these leaders face;

3. Providing strong incentives for leaders to stay, so that it is clear how much achievement within such challenging circumstances means to the entire organization;

4. Ensuring these leaders know how much they are valued, by arranging face time with the CEO and by providing opportunities for them to regularly submit feedback on the job that the organization is doing to support them.

These methods enable strong leaders to succeed by building their skills, aligning programs and resources to what is important to the organization, and by giving leaders a voice in important decisions. But until both the public and private sectors get better at implementing these methods, we will continue to face the retention battle. In the case of educating Hartford children, that is a battle we simply must win.

Devi Mohanty is the vice president of strategy and business development at The Hartford Financial Services Group and a member of Achieve Hartford!'s board of directors.

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