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Eluding the Elusiveness of Retention: How to Keep Your Great Performers

Professional Growth

Originally written for the AppliTrack “Hire Greatness Today” publication

A tale of two districts. In one, the annual retirement dinner is a heartfelt occasion where retirees stand up and recount the precious moments of their careers, often interrupted by their very own tears of joy, as they offer deep gratitude for having had the great fortune to work in such a fine school district. Time after time, the words “school district” are uttered by these honorees — each of which feels that their lives have been greatly enhanced because once upon a time there was an HR Director who believed in them enough to offer them a job.

In the other, a strike is about to take place. Teachers, many of them early in their profession, are angry at the school district, wearing pins and t-shirts that lambaste district leadership for what they see as arrogance and mistreatment. They seem to have forgotten that it has only been a short time since that very same school administration believed in them enough to offer them a career. And although they are educated individuals, one can be fairly sure that most of these teachers do not understand the complexity and nuance of the history of labor relations in their school district leading up to this moment. Still, their vehemence is unwavering. And despite their loyalty to their schools, to their colleagues, and even to their principal, they despise a central office that they see as tone-deaf and top-heavy. Years from now when these rookies retire and they reminisce on their professional lives, it is likely that they will not be paying homage to the district.

A workforce that is grateful to the district is a workforce that trusts its leaders. A district that is about to strike is one that does not. In the first district, strong educators aspire to work there and those who are already there choose to stay. In the second district, strong educators look around for other opportunities in other school districts or, disenfranchised by what they perceive must be endemic to the K-12 industry, they leave the profession. Educators who are not so strong are often the ones who stick around the longest.

Retention is the elusive term that speaks to how we keep our employees in our employ and it’s important to attend to for obvious reasons: namely, the financial impact of having to train new staff; and the capacity of seasoned employees to deliver on the mission versus new employees who come with vertical learning curves.

Retention is elusive because most districts are challenged to understand who is leaving and why they’re leaving and what to do about it. (The sub-field of Workforce Analytics is starting to enable school districts to refine their HRIS data so as to actually understand the dynamics of retention and attrition of their workforces, and this is an exciting development.) But even once we understand who’s staying and who’s going, we will be faced with the obvious question about retention: How do we hang on to our strong performers? The answer to this core question  is what most eludes us about retention.

Retention is very different than Recruitment. Recruitment takes place in a relatively short, finite period of time. Retention takes place over many months and years and is not attributable to a single strategic act. It happens because over a period of time, through the good and the bad, employees feel and believe that they are valued by the organization and that they matter to the organization  that they are a piece of a bigger thing, and that their work is important. It happens because employees feel unconstrained by the bureaucracy in which they work, and feel empowered to create. In such an organization, the employee is not looking at opportunities in neighboring school districts or in another field  because they are contented and satisfied in their own. Hence in the tale of the two districts above, it is easy to see which district will have an easier time retaining talent.

Moreover, there is a growing body of work that argues that a slight percentage increase in employee pay does not impact retention. Gee, that’s a shocker. (For a wonderfully engaging exploration of this, look up Dan Pink’s “RSA Animate-Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us” on You Tube.) So remember that next time you’re at the bargaining table quibbling over an additional 0.5%. While it may matter a great deal to union leadership, it does not matter to members. Not the strong ones that you’re trying to retain, anyway.

What matters is those elusive ideals of feeling valued; being part of something you believe in; having autonomy as Dan Pink argues; and other non-tangibles. And if you’ve ever served in a classroom, you’ll know that sometimes those elusive ideals are often strikingly elusive.

But, there are ways to do it  and as always, I won’t let you leave until I give you some practical ideas to get started:

1. Know them by name. You and your superintendent need to know who your superstars are in every building, and you need to know them by name. When you visit the building, you make a point to seek out these individuals and congratulate them on the work they are doing. And this is not limited to the rockstar teachers. Your best paraprofessionals, your best bus drivers, and the brilliant cafeteria worker who knows every child by name  they deserve to have this honor, too. If your Superintendent isn’t able to get to every school to do this, then it falls to you.

2. Use Cabinet Time. Relocate the occasional Cabinet Meetings to the classroom of a superstar, and ask the superstar to take a half-hour and show you what they do and how they do it. (Trust me, this is a great use of Cabinet time.) Note that this is particularly effective with a teacher-team as opposed to a solo act, where the soloist might be a bit intimidated by the power in the room. For paraprofessionals  take a different approach. Ask a few of them to come to meet with the Cabinet and advise you on what’s happening in their world. Of course, if they’re unionized, stay clear of conversations that are connected to contractual issues. But focus on what they find meaningful in their work, what’s challenging, and what advice they would have for you as district leaders.

3. And finally, help your district to not act like an antique. I saved this one for last, even though it’s the most important one. Here’s the thing we have a tendency in the world of K-12 to ignore the HR teachings of progressive for-profit companies. We look at the Googles and Motley Fools of the world and we say: that would never work in the world of schools. And while that’s largely true (I don’t suppose too many of you can afford to provide free catered lunches to all your employees every day), there are learnings from those organizations that we ought not ignore. I’ll speak more about this in an upcoming column. But in the meantime, try this: Think about what it would look like to give a one-week sabbatical to some of your best performers, during which time they explore and learn whatever rocks their world. I know, it’s an utterly crazy idea, and there are a lot of folks who will actively disparage it. Just promise me you’ll think about it anyway.

If you take one of the steps above, I’d love to hear how it’s working. I invite you to reach out to me at

Hank Harris

Hank Harris, Founder and Principal of Human Capital Enterprises, is a seasoned Chief Human Resources Officer and Consultant. His passion is building ethical and successful organizations by finding the most talented individuals with the greatest track record of commitment and integrity. Formerly serving as Executive Director of Human Resources for the school districts of Portland, Oregon and Bellingham, Washington, Hank also serves on the national Governing Board of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators. With a previous background as a teacher and middle school principal, Hank now supports clients nationwide. Hank is an avid traveller, piano player, and Seahawks fan, and is passionate about ensuring that every employer, employee, and aspirant is well-served by a top-drawer Human Capital department. You can reach him at