A friend from a well-respected organization recently asked me, “How do you have so many people stay on your team for so many years? What’s your secret?”
I’ve now been at the same organization, Ashoka, for eight years. It’s been my only professional home since I graduated from college. Initially, I had intended to stay for just one year before heading back to school to get my MBA, yet here I still am—feeling professionally stimulated and rewarded in ways I never imagined were possible.
In 2008, after a few years at the organization, I co-founded Ashoka U, a fast-growing initiative within Ashoka that seeks to transform universities into hubs of social innovation. I am lucky that I work as part of an incredible, four-person team that also feels satisfied and challenged by our work—between us we have clocked a total of 20 years at Ashoka U.
Our whole team plans to stick around for the foreseeable future and we are making plans for 2015, when I’ll celebrate my 10-year anniversary at Ashoka. In addition to both enjoying and finding meaning in our work, we are all in healthy personal relationships, have time for family, and get relatively generous vacation time.
I know, it sounds too good to be true. So, what’s the secret?
Well, the truth is that in the first few years of our program we had many ups and downs, but after much patience and persistence, we have gotten into our groove. It took a lot of intentional work and constant effort and tweaking to get to this point in our group dynamics, and we’ve learned a lot along the way.
Good News: The Bar is Low
If you are looking to build a healthy team culture where your employees feel valued and want to stick around for years, the good news is that the bar is really low.
Even in the social sector, it’s shocking just how many organizations treat employees as dispensable. At the worst end of things, there are organizations that run through staff at the speed of light as a basic operating procedure—burning them out through crazy hours, (unintentionally) making them disillusioned, taking advantage of their passion for the mission of the organization, and chronically under-paying because there is a long line of others waiting for one of the scarce mission-aligned jobs out there. At the better end of things, organizations aren’t doing anything wrong, but they also aren’t doing anything particularly right, either. For most staff, it is a luxury to get any time to do something creative where you truly feel empowered. Mentorship is something you need to find outside of the organization and the norm is an unhealthy culture of workaholism.
Better News: It’s Easy to Stand Out
Even if you make just a few key structural changes, your retention rate and employee satisfaction will increase exponentially. In our small microcosm at Ashoka U, there are four techniques that have had a huge impact on overall team satisfaction, cohesion and effectiveness:
1) Ownership and Accountability
We have recently switched our program into three strategic buckets, which have clear programmatic goals and financial oversight management (for both revenues and expenses). We also clearly delineate team roles with “Director” titles to denote that all of us are expected to perform at a high level and are treated like mature adults who can manage a sub-program with confidence and competence. This budget and program leadership immediately led to an increased commitment to the work and, within a few months, everyone was operating at a significantly higher level.
2) Space and Flexibility
We started with an expectation that everyone works hard but also gets a clear vacation policy of three weeks anytime during non-peak times of the year, in addition to most long holiday weekends (Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving). We also advocate working from home when doing writing projects since meetings and other distractions are rampant at the office. I recently learned about a working vacation, also known as a “workation,” and everyone on the team is encouraged to consider at least one workation per year in an exotic locale. This year I’ll work from a friend’s holiday home in Cyprus, with beach time thrown in before the workday, and I promise you that it will be a productive time.
3) Regular Team Retreats
Time out of the office in a relaxing environment for two days (twice a year) can do a lot to build a strong team culture and a trust-based environment. We are lucky that a family friend has a beautiful, ocean-side lodge that they donate to us for retreats, and the time spent cooking and walking together between meals is as important as our time focused on clarifying long-term program strategy and detailing project plans. While it seems like a huge amount of time away from work, it is an investment in the backbone of the team—trust and shared experiences are important.
4) Year-round Feedback
The idea that performance reviews only happen once a year as a talent development tool is ridiculous, since learning is about repetition, practice and course-correcting as you go. Without feedback it is virtually impossible for anyone to become better at what they do. While it’s hard to take the time to give regular feedback, and to think about giving feedback in the ratio of 5:1 positive feedback to negative feedback (which I’ve heard called the “magic ratio”), the reward is that people will grow faster than you think is possible and will start trusting you more since you are supportive and focused on how they can improve and develop.
Will You Embrace a New Kind of Leadership?
There are lots of scary parts to any kind of change, and some of the tactics I’m suggesting may make you highly uncomfortable. The thought of offering generous vacation packages, opening yourself up to feedback, and allowing for more flexibility and trust might mean that productivity goes down. But you might be surprised.
My bet is that this new team culture and mindset will harness intrinsic motivation and an individual’s core needs to achieve, to contribute and to connect in a way that most organizations are losing out on.
article originally appeared on Forbes.