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Partnerships and Building Relationships / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

A Relevant Repost! Tilling the Soil: Staff Turnover

staff turnover

Corn as high as an elephant’s eye? Why stop there? How is farming equivalent to staff turnover?

The seeds are bought. The seller promised a yield surpassing anything ever seen before. Acre upon acre of corn growing much, much higher than an elephant’s eye. The new tractor had been purchased. Much better than the old tractor. And just for show, you bought new work gloves and some new boots.  The rains had been good, the weather fair for growing. The table was set for record yields and hopes were high.  So, full of hope, you spread the new seeds with the new spreader in the new boots and you waited, knowing that this year would be different. The improvements would happen and the yields would return. But then they didn’t. The corn did not grow even to an elephant’s shin. And in sadness, you wonder what happened. Everything had looked so promising. What went wrong?  So you walk the land. And then it’s clear. The soil was rocky. It hadn’t been tilled. The moist earth below the hardened crust had been unturned. The seeds had fallen on earth unreceptive and unlikely to grow. And you think, “What was I thinking? How in the world could I have expected anything to prosper in this land? And why, WHY did I buy these new boots?”

It’s an obvious storyline. It’s ancient in its roots. We know this story well. Our ancestors knew this story and have told it around the fire for eons. There is something in all of our shared human experience that resonates through this story of tending the land and growing healthy crops. Yet in our own lives and work, we often fail to recognize the truths of this tale calling to us, imploring us to till the earth of where we work and how we behave. This ancient story asks us the most basic of questions: Have we created the conditions where our intended goals and outcomes are likely to occur?

At the Search Institute, an organization deeply committed to creating organizations and communities where young people are healthy and thrive, we help individuals and organizations think anew about their attitudes and behaviors towards young people and we lead them to operate differently in light of this new thinking.

But we’re not alone in these fields.

Maybe your organization does a form of character education. Or maybe you’ve come up with your own language to describe the ways your organization wants to impact young people. There’s a common genome amongst these youth-oriented outcomes. Regardless of what language we use, we all share some similar views of how we want to treat youth. We speak of respect, integrity, empowerment, responsibility, safety, happiness, and health just to name a few.  Yet we often seem to fall short of our goals, perhaps even jumping from program to program or framework to framework, seeking the one that will take root and provide for the outcomes we aspire to. Why does this happen?  Perhaps it’s because we’re too much like the farmer who didn’t till the soil.

This is as obvious and ancient as the story itself, yet we aren’t always responsive. If we want staff to treat youth with integrity and respect but staff aren’t feeling respected, can that possibly work? If we stress effective communication with young people, but the adults in the organization don’t communicate well, can that possibly work? If young people are in conflict with one another and we teach peaceful conflict resolution but adults fail to reconcile their conflicts with one another, can that possibly work? And in this absence of adult-centered mindfulness, is it any wonder that we have an adult drop-out problem? How many colleagues and staff members have you lost in the past three years? How many of those staff members are people you could ill-afford to lose? How many of those staff people left because the experience of working in the organization wasn’t satisfying? How many of your initiatives or long-range goals have withered over time? How tiring is it to watch good intentions, good plans, and good people disappear?

You can change that. And you can start today. Here’s the first step: STOP TALKING ABOUT THE YOUNG PEOPLE.

Blasphemy! What do you mean, “stop talking about the young people?” Here’s what I mean. Until we have created the conditions in our organizations that are likely to be receptive to change and improvement, it’s unlikely any of the changes will take root. And we create those conditions by thinking about the adults and what it’s like showing up for work every day.

The easiest way to fully enter into this reflective process is to take the exact language that describes your work with youth and apply it directly to the adults.

I’m going to assume that most youth-serving organizations have a mission statement similar to this: We empower and support young people so that they are successful and healthy. We empower and support the adults working in this organization every day so that they are able to empower and support young people. That being the case, then it begs this statement:  How would things change for your daily experience if you held this second goal as the highest priority in your place of work? The stakes are high in this conversation. We’re working at a time where education reform and funding to youth programs are hot topics. Innovation abounds and the conversation is brisk about how we’re going to lower drop-out rates, close the achievement gap, and rectify a host of other social maladies. But I’m deeply concerned about this conversation because of what we’re not talking about. Lost in this dialogue is a meaningful discussion about the adult culture of all this change. Within education, we know that 50% of teachers leave within the first five years of their careers and the numbers are even more alarming amongst youth-serving organizations. What’s YOUR staff drop out rate?

Until all of these organizations push the pause button and do some serious soul-searching about the workplace conditions and adult culture, I’m afraid most of the innovations and goals for the future are going to wither and die.

We’re heading into a golden age for schools and youth-serving organizations.

I truly believe that. But I’m also scared that we’re missing the most obvious and necessary opportunities to improve. Until we break down the cultural norm of “it’s all about the kids,” we’re going to continue to hemorrhage staff and watch good plans shrivel.  It’s time for a new conversation, a new revolution. It’s time for all of us to go back to our ancient roots of turning the earth and tending the lands so our crops grow and flourish. The days of spreading seeds on dry earth must end. The time is nigh for us to get dirt under our nails and toil joyfully to ensure our crops grow. We know this. Now we simply must connect what we know with what we do.

For breakfast today I had one fried egg, some shredded cheese and two pieces of turkey bacon wrapped in a tortilla. My favorite!

Author: Nathan Eklund



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