To retain top talent, managers matter

Expert Insight

To retain top talent, managers matter

5 imperatives to help guide managers to success

People don’t leave organizations, they leave their managers

While researching professional development and major gift officer retention, we consistently heard about the importance of managers both within and outside of advancement in higher education. The employee-manager relationship is critical to workplace engagement. In fact, the Advisory Board’s Survey Solutions team has found that staff who rate their manager as “excellent” are five times more engaged than staff who rate their manager as “poor.”

Drivers of engagement define manager effectiveness

Of the 24 identified drivers of individual employee engagement, the Advisory Board Company has isolated 10 that measure the quality of an individual’s manager—the Manager Effectiveness Index:

  • My organization helps me deal with stress and burnout
  • My manager stands up for the interests of my unit/department
  • My most recent performance review helped me to improve
  • Conflicts are resolved fairly in my unit/department
  • My manager is open and responsive to staff input
  • My manager communicates messages that my coworkers need to hear, even when the information is unpleasant
  • My manager helps me learn new skills
  • I have helpful discussions with my manager about my career
  • I receive regular feedback from my manager on my performance
  • My manager helps me balance my job and personal life

“Premature departures of fundraisers can be traced to poor relationships with immediate managers.” -“Path to the Profession,” CASE Currents 2012

Despite the importance of a manager to an employee’s level of engagement, few organizations invest in developing skilled managers. Furthermore, resources for strategic talent management programs or professional development programs are often overlooked. To improve the value of professional development offerings, organizations have to recognize that managers are the lynchpin for employee development and retention.

Toolkit: Equip managers with the critical resources they need

Many managers lack core competencies

To be promoted in the fundraising industry, you must be an exemplary fundraiser. However, this type of fundraiser does not naturally translate to a successful manager. As a result, many managers lack core management skills. In fact, fewer than 10% of chief advancement officers (CAOs) and associate vice presidents who attended the 2015-2016 Advancement Forum meeting series had training prior to assuming their first management role. Our members are not alone—in the fundraising industry, well over half of fundraising directors share this same experience.

Few Resources Dedicated to Manager Development

Few Resources

5 imperatives to help guide managers to success

The five imperatives detailed below can be integrated into an existing talent management and professional development strategy to help guide managers who may not have received formal management training. In addition, they will ensure that both the manager and employee feel supported and engaged at work.

Imperative 1: Make professional development a strategic priority

If advancement leaders aspire to increase their teams’ skill and performance (and consequently retain staff), professional development must become a priority. Of course, the foundation of any talent management program is educating leadership about their critical role. Anyone who manages staff is responsible for talent management and should be aware of this fact.

Imperative 2: Formalize professional development

Ultimately, employees need to know that they are valued as individuals within the organization. This should be communicated through ongoing conversations about present performance, potential professional development, and future career aspirations. To move beyond simply providing professional development opportunities, senior leaders should set aside time for these focused conversations between managers and direct reports.

Imperative 3: Equip managers to hold effective talent conversations

In order to encourage employee development and retention, managers should provide employees with the tools and resources they need to succeed, including conversations about professional development. These conversations should have three goals:

  • Convey the importance of the individual’s contributions to the organization
  • Increase their understanding of the employee’s career aspirations and personal development objectives
  • Show that there are opportunities to grow within the organization (even when formal career ladders are not available)

Imperative 4: Ensure that ownership of professional development is a two-way street

Professional development cannot simply be top-down. Employees have to take a stake in their own development and career aspirations. So, once aspirations and focus areas for professional development are shared, employees should co-create individual development plans with their managers, and each employee should own their individual plan. This creates accountability for reaching professional development objectives.

Imperative 5: Measure professional development outcomes with ongoing check-ins to evaluate skill development

To strategically deploy professional development, managers have to move beyond merely asking if their teams are satisfied with the training provided. Instead, managers must ask if participants acquired the intended knowledge, skills, and confidence after participating in training sessions.

Additionally, managers should assess how their direct reports employ the concepts learned during training once the session is over. Follow the model of evaluation shown below to ensure that training is truly leading to improved skills and competencies.

The Kirkpatrick Model of Evaluation


Additional resources to support the manager-employee relationship

The Professional Development Playbook can help you equip managers with the critical resources they need, diagnose new hires’ skills gaps, and deploy high-impact skill building. Download the full toolkit


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