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How to Think About Employee Retention in an Economy Where Your Execs Just Want a Change

It’s no secret that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the U.S. workforce, with estimates as high as 38 million Americans quitting their jobs in 2021.

While a lot of research has explored the impact on junior-level employees (who, by and large, fared worse), we wanted to get inside the head of executives. Were they changing jobs at the same rate, too? And if so, what do they want?

The Great Reshuffling Among Executive-Level Talent

To better understand the impact of the Great Resignation on C-level executives in the United States, we analyzed the profiles of 5,000+ Bolster members to see what job changes our network experienced last year. Our main takeaway: Nearly 1 in 3 executives (28.3%) changed jobs in 2021.

Also noteworthy: We found that executive job switchers mostly just wanted something different. For some, that meant founding their own company (5%), or moving to a new location, and for others, it meant smaller changes like joining a board (13%), or pursuing a passion. This also aligns with this increased movement toward on-demand executive work: Approximately one-third of executives in Bolster’s marketplace are exclusively looking for interim, fractional, or project-based work.

Below, a closer look at the profile of a senior-level “job switcher” in 2021 and how business leaders can think about employee retention in a world where everyone wants something different.

What Executives Want at Work Today:

A new era of work has brought about new norms in and around the office – and we noticed that by and large, executives in our network seemed to use last year as an opportunity to switch up one or more things about the way they worked.

Here’s what executives seemed to optimize for in career changes in 2021:

  • A change in their day-to-day: Of 1,600+ executives with career changes in 2021, only 9% of these shifts were internal promotions within the same organization. Nine in ten
    job switchers opted to work for an entirely new employer.

  • New industry exposure: In 2021, 87.8% of executives who changed jobs opted to change industries entirely. Though it’s worth noting that most of these shifts fell within three large overall buckets of work: Internet/Computer Software, Financial Services, and Venture Capital (the three areas most represented in our Bolster member network).

  • Change of scene: The vast majority of job switchers (71.8%) not only changed companies and industries but also changed regions where they worked. While states with large urban hubs topped the list of states where job switchers moved, we also saw an increasing number of individuals presumably opting for some other lifestyle change, with states like Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, and Georgia all making the top 10.

The Impact of The Great Resignation on Employee Retention

It’s a tricky time to be a CEO. On top of economic instability, fissures in politics and globalization, and broad societal rifts and silos, business leaders need to figure out how to manage executive teams in the midst of the biggest turnover of talent in our lifetime.

Our research found that, by and large, executives are looking for new opportunities and ways to shake up their routines. Savvy CEOS should think about how to expand options for career diversification among their leadership teams.

Here are four tips for how CEOs can shake up the dynamic and inject a change of pace into the day-to-day workflow of executives at your organization.

  1. Give executives the opportunity to switch up their projects.
    Let’s be honest: No matter where you sit inside an organization, doing the same job quarter after quarter is bound to get a little tedious. Knowing that executives today are more likely to welcome a shake-up at work, consider flipping around the scope of responsibility or functional units at your company. At Bolster, our leadership team re-evaluates both how we organize our business units (we call them swim lanes) as well as who leads each swim lane from one quarter to the next. We’ve found that exposing leaders to many sides of the business, and switching around the operating systems periodically is a great way to keep things fresh.
  2. Figure out your geographic parameters.
    There’s no easy answer for how to address the in-office vs. hybrid work dynamic, so this is likely something that each CEO needs to think about on their own. As a starting point, we recommend having honest conversations with your executive team to see if there are any individuals considering more extreme geographic moves, or whether folks would prefer to stay clustered together. Depending on the group dynamics, you’ll need to come up with the balance that feels best for everyone around the table. Even though we’re a remote-first company, we heard feedback last year that our leadership team wanted more face-to-face connection time. This year, we’ve budgeted for quarterly, in-person meetups with just the executive team. It’s a big investment, but it’s worth the pay-off.
  3. Consider fractional work.
    With more and more project-based jobs becoming the norm, some executives may welcome the opportunity to slightly reduce their time at your organization in order to pick up another project elsewhere. If the thought of employees dipping their toes into other waters scares you, consider this an extension of Google’s “20% time” philosophy. However, rather than seek out a project internally that’s a change of pace from your typical scope of work, encourage executives to look outside of your company. Not only will project diversification inject new energy into your executive team, but it will also naturally introduce new ideas and perspectives around the table, too. Some of the most common fractional roles we help place at Bolster include fractional finance, marketing, and business development executives, but there’s a case to be made for project-based work in nearly every function.
  4. Encourage your executive team to take on board or advisory roles.
    If you’re not prepared to introduce fractionalization onto your executive team, another opportunity is to partner with your executives to help them find board or advisory opportunities that excite them. About two-thirds of the executives in our Bolster network are actively looking for board positions, but it’s not always clear how to take the first step toward achieving that. Dedicate some of your own time to help forge pathways for your own team. (A good place to start is to encourage all of your executives – regardless of their current employment status – to sign up for Bolster profiles!)

While you won’t be able to retain every single executive at your company (nor should you – after all, business needs and skillset requirements change as your company evolves), there likely are a few ways to provide a more dynamic work environment, even among your existing team.

-Bethany Crystal, April 14th, 2022.