How to Retain Your Startup's Best Employees

One of the most important changes is the workplace in the last 20 years is the notion that most employees are free agents. We are hired and fired and resign at will. It’s a markedly different era than the career salarymen of IBM’s heyday who remained with the company for decades from college graduation through retirement. In this highly-competitive talent market, where every employee is a free agent, hiring and retaining talent has become a key strategic advantage.

So, which are the best tools to create a vibrant and attractive working environment? I’m sure this is a question on every founder and CEO’s mind. In The Alliance, Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh describe the talent management strategies which succeeded at LinkedIn. In particular, they adopt a metaphor coined by VP of Product David Hahn during his nine years at LinkedIn: the Tour of Duty.

A Tour of Duty has a defined mission, clear objectives, and a bounded time frame. The book describes three different types of Tours of Duty:

  1. Rotational Tours: rotational tours cycle an employee through a few different departments over the course of several years. The employee benefits from a breadth of learning and exposure to different teams, and the employer tests longer-term fit across different departments. Several companies have management rotation programs. Some of the best known ones including GE’s Early Career Leadership Program and Google’s APM program, among many others.
  2. Transformational Tours: transformational tours are bounded by individual progression and are typically negotiated by manager and employee with the aim of transforming the employee into someone who can meaningfully change the trajectory of the business. They are often longer in duration than rotational tours.
  3. Foundational Tours: a smaller group of people will be able to embark on foundational tours, which the book defines as exceptional alignment of employee and employer. Jony Ive at Apple. Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn. Eric Schmidt at Google. These there employees joined a company and transformed it by melding their vision with the company’s. Foundational tours can last decades.

Achieving success in a of Tours of Duty demands a similar process to most well designed projects. First, a shared sense of mission and values between employer and employee must be established. Second, the company must take the time to understand the short and long term career aspirations of the employee, and craft a tour of duty with relevant daily work that will help the employee achieve those goals. Third, employers and employees must define success criteria for the Tour of Duty. Fourth, employer and manager should provide each other feedback on progress throughout. Finally, the next tour of duty must begin to be defined before the current one is completed.

I wasn’t familiar with it before reading The Alliance, but I really like the idea of a Tour of Duty. It aligns the mission and work of an employee with a business, and ensures both are benefitting from the relationship. In order to attract and retain the best talent, startups have to create a culture of trust, respect, learning, accomplishment and shared values/mission. The Tour of Duty concept is a framework to help companies foster that culture.

Published 2014-07-29 in Startups  Best Practices 


I'm a partner at Redpoint. I invest in Series A and B SaaS companies. I write daily, data-driven blog posts about key questions facing startups. I co-authored the book, Winning with Data. Join more than 18,000 others receiving these blog posts by email.

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