“There is a lot of talk about how to find talent.
And far too little about how to keep them.”

Marcel Ramin Derakhchan21. September 2022

ddla partner Carolyn Schlak on the war for talent, employee retention and the future of the HR function in companies

Carolyn Schlak, Partner at dla

Ms Schlak, companies are desperately looking for expert and leadership teams – even though we have been talking about the war for talent for years. Why do we still have this situation?

In such a complex environment as the market for highly qualified employees, one should of course be rather cautious with explanations and analyses. GIn general, I observe that the attitude of many people towards work has changed significantly in recent years. The shortage of skilled workers is indeed not new to us. But today, the individual meaningfulness of the work activity is questioned much more strongly, the conditions for doing the work with pleasure.

In other words, the shortage of skilled workers is one thing. But the willingness to look for a fulfilling job is much more pronounced than it used to be significantly more criteria play a role in career decisions. What you want to do, how intensively you want to do it, and now also where you want to work from – people are dealing with this more and more.

In addition, more and more people, especially in the result of the Corona epidemic, want to take time off or work part-time or flexibly adapt their working models. All in all, this means that professional decisions today are very differentiated and demanding. . And employers who cannot meet these expectations lose their attractiveness. That is why the willingness to change jobs is also increasing significantly.

Doesn’t this trend also bring the question of employee retention into sharp focus?

Absolutely. In recent years, we have talked a lot about the difficulty of attracting talents. And far too little about how to keep them.

Ideally, you get up in the morning and know why you are doing this job, exactly with this employer, and not something else somewhere else. People ask themselves these questions more often today. I observe that the individual values have shifted noticeably. Free time, family, social activities – in other words, quality of life in a deeper sense – play a very important role. This development meets the virtualisation of work. Remote work has opened up many new possibilities. But it also makes the employee retention and commitment much more demanding.

Taken together, this poses a great challenge for companies and their managers and human resources departments.

Because one has to keep a close connection to the employees, balancing on the fine line between support, freedom and the consistent pursuit of company goals and combining bonding with self-determination.

If you don’t succeed in keeping the team members on board, you don’t just have to go back to start again and again in terms of staffing. A constant coming and going instead of a healthy fluctuation disrupts the company and negatively influences the corporate culture.

With people who are always gone after eighteen months, you don’t reach the next level. If new colleagues constantly join the team, there is no sense of togetherness and no relationship of trust and you lose strength and efficiency. These are not the conditions for successful development, change or transformation.

Do the trends you have outlined also have an influence on employee development?

Professional CVs are less and less characterised by the classic career paths. Instead, it is very much about individual development paths. The focus is increasingly on professional rather than hierarchical aspects. Also because our organisations and ways of working correspond less and less to this image. And that’s where it gets challenging. Because in order to support such a development, you have to be close to the employees, build trust, have intensive conversations, ask questions and listen in order to find out what the best individual path is. This also includes being able to openly say what employees are missing in order to be successful in the organisation. Only then can you give effective support. Or perhaps to make it clear at a certain point that certain goals cannot be achieved together.

Of course, this also shows that the classic “off-the-shelf” leadership programmes that are often offered to young talents are not enough.

Firstly, peolpe development does not always have to be about leadership. And secondly, such isolated, very often local programmes are limited because they allow little diversity, inspiration and international perspectives. And these factors are essential today to cope in a world where value creation is not structured along organisational charts and reporting lines.

These kind of development programmes need time. That is the third factor. But when you work 60 hours a week, it is questionable whether inspiration and exchange still have room. Employees and companies have to think about this equally.

Many companies have realised that it is no longer about managing human resources, but about developing people and culture for the benefit of the company and its employees. Against this background, what would be the core task of the People & Culture division?

On the one hand, you have to recognise exactly what the employees really need. . And on the other hand, understand the business, that is, understand what the company needs. What is the company’s business model, what skills does this business model require? How can the business strategy be translated into the people strategy? And on this basis, you then have to look for individual solutions and offer support. This necessity is increasingly being recognised – but the transfer into practice is not happening fast enough. And not all HR professionals who come from a somewhat more traditional HR world feel comfortable in this role either. Because you really have to see yourself as a “people partner” and support the managers in a targeted way – not least on the basis of your own network, on the basis of diverse, also international experience.

Does the role model of the People & Culture department that you describe also require a certain reporting line within the organisation? A strong standing in order to make its own perspective visible and relevant?

The People & Culture department has its own position in the top management of the organisation, so that it is involved in all strategic decisions at an early stage. However, one must then also be able to have a say, i.e. deeply understand the employees and the company. You have to be able to explain and convince, and to get the right people on board for your own cause.

Against this background, how difficult is it to fill leading positions in the area of People & Culture? How do you proceed in these kind of projects?

For me, it is absolutely crucial to understand where the company wants to go. Because only against this background can the specific requirements for the leadership positions in HR be defined. At the same time, the culture of the company plays an essential role as a variable in the project. It’s no use if we find an excellent HR professional but he or she doesn’t fit in with the company, that won’t be a successful cooperation. This has to be discussed in detail with the candidates during the interview phase, so that the company’s goals are understood and supported and are also in line with the individual goals. For a fast-growing start-up and for a company that perhaps wants to create a cultural change, but otherwise wants to keep the structures stable, different personalities are needed at the top of the HR department.

There is little talk about compensation as a decision criterion for candidates. What role does it play in filling management positions in the People & Culture sector?

I experience again and again that it depends strongly on the individual phase of life and the personal mindset – which, by the way, is not a question of age. When people are in the process of building up a foundation of assets, perhaps raising and securing a family, or simply their ideas of success correlate strongly with income, then salary plays a big role. And then, if you are good, you will also find this fast track, there are enough companies that are also willing to maintain very high salary levels. . However, real leadership positions are very much about purpose in the broadest sense, about opportunities to shape and have an impact. My experience tells me that salary is of course important. But the question of whether one achieves an increase of ten or fifteen percent is not the main issue.

Carolyn Schlakis a partner at dla and focuses in particular on expanding the executive search portfolio for HR functions and is responsible for the new focus area “Platform Economy”. She specialises in filling HR leadership and top management positions on both national and European levels.


Marcel Ramin Derakhchan is the founder of dla digital leaders advisory and is responsible for filling top management positions in business & professional services companies as well as software and high-tech companies. His specialty lies in complex search assignments that require an interdisciplinary approach of search, organizational consultancy, and individual coaching..