The 120 Rule

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Lately, I’ve been working on a number of projects to help a large employer improve their employee engagement and retention. I could likely write a book about such a topic – and of course there are many books, blogs, and companies devoted to the art and science of employee engagement and retention. Earlier this week I was having a conversation with a fellow senior executive on this topic and how I was able to build a team from 12 marketers to 29 in less than four years while keeping voluntary attrition to about 1.5 headcount per year. Voluntary turnover averages between 10 and 15-percent across all industries with nonprofits typically suffering a bit more. Marketers, especially millennials early in their career, have much shorter job tenure, on average. Jerry Bernhart has published some wonderful research on this topic that shows millennial marketers tend to stay at their jobs for less than two years. Based upon that statistic, and considering the demographics of the 29-person team (early 20s to early 60s), I should be seeing 5-10 employees leaving per year, voluntarily. With the job market fairly strong (low unemployment, lots of open positions), employees with strong marketing skills can be easily poached.

So why is my employee retention higher than any other department?

Well, that’s a bit loaded and self-serving. I could could profess that I’m a great leader and well-liked. And while this may very well be the case, there are other factors at play here – many within my control. Let’s look at 12 factors that can influence employee retention (in no particular order):

  • Compensation
  • Benefits
  • Culture
  • Product
  • Work load
  • Work/life balance
  • Leadership/management
  • Peers
  • Commute
  • Outlook/industry
  • Job market
  • Career path

Sure there are many others, but these 12 stand out to me as significant factors for employee retention.

For the purpose of this discussion, I want to look “work load” and introduce a leadership concept called “The 120 Rule”.

I believe in empowering employees to optimize their workload. To do so, I make it very clear what the priorities are for the organization and how that translates into prioritizing marketing projects. From there, employees should be able to take a high-level view of their projects and then sort them according to these priorities. The result should be a linear list. In a busy in-demand shared services organization, such as the one that I run, there are many competing priorities. I have multiple stakeholder clients that all believe their project is the most important. It is my job as at the head of marketing to interpret and translate these requests based upon research, multiple points of input, and my judgment; and then help stakeholders calibrate their expectations.

Here’s where the 120 Rule comes into play. I coach my team that it is always good to have 120 things to do, but only time for 100. If this is their reality, then essentially, they are always optimizing out 20-percent of the projects that add the least amount of value to the organization. (Okay math nerds, I get it that 20/120 is not 20% but rather 17%, but I don’t want to call this the 17-percent rule.) Giving staff the authority to make those decisions (prioritization of tasks) is important. Marketers really like to own their task list. Providing ownership delegation, so long as it generally aligns with the strategic priorities of the organization, empowers staff to take control of their work. Within a given week, staff can adjust their work-stream to complete the easy projects first, the fun project first, the hard projects first, or any permutation thereof. The point is, so long as deadlines are being met, why should I care as the leader what someone works on first, second, or last? Again, so long as the priorities are being met at the high level, the path that an employee takes to get there doesn’t matter to me. There will be times that as the senior executive, I will have to short circuit the priorities list or require a fire drill. But, if I maintain order and a well-organized strategic plan, then the team will be more receptive and agile for accommodating changes to priorities or fire drills. Good marketers do this well and don’t let these changes interfere with their success.

Additionally, I paint the opposite picture for my staff. What if you only had 80 things to do but time for 100? Being idle for long periods of time shows lack of value/ROI of a marketer. The result is usually a layoff. A marketer should never be idle. And a marketer should always know what they are supposed to be working on and how that adds value to the organization

So, bringing this all together… I can say that one strong factor in the team’s low turnover, is that we have successfully embraced the 120 Rule. Everyone knows what the top priorities are, and the order in which projects should be completed. They know that when they get to a milestone or cross road, to ask for a little bit of additional direction. They also know that they have the authority to set their schedule and task list so long as it meets the clearly identified deliverable dates.

Another by-product of the 120 Rule is that if you consistently see a project sit in the optimized-out 20-percent, and typically that means for longer than a year, then it’s time to reexamine why that project is on the last and whether it should be retired altogether. Clearly it’s not a priority and it won’t add much in the way of value. It it’s valuable, it would be in the bottom 20.

Are you optimizing your work stream? Try the 120 Rule to improve employee satisfaction and retention. It’s okay to ignore 20-percent of your work if you’re always working on the most important stuff.