Treat Employees Like Volunteers – The Cure for High Staff Turnover?

An interview by Melissa Llarena, a career transition and talent management expert, with Christine Schoaff, an IT, and Project Manager who has contributed  across 15 years to volunteer organizations in roles ranging from member to executive director.

Top Talent Insider, Melissa Llarena: An existing assumption is that engineers are high earners – you have worked among them and you are one yourself. Tell us why even when employers are handsomely paid you should still treat them as volunteers i.e. why is it NOT enough to pay employees well as a retention strategy?

christine2Christine Schoaff: This question gets to the heart of the talent equation.  One thing to remember is that all equations have two sides. So here, there is the employee and the employer. The key to getting an employee to stay is in the quality of the relationship. The variables in that formula are similar for employees as well as for volunteers.

As Cal Newport says in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, qualities of autonomy, competence and relatedness are the basis for a fulfilling job.  Being a volunteer is defined by these circumstances as well because a volunteer will only continue to contribute when the effort has rewards.

For volunteers, these characteristics define the relationship:

Autonomy – “Feeling that you have control over your day and that your actions are important.” Volunteers decide when to participate and what to contribute. There is likely little or no oversight and everything you do matters in an obvious way.

Competence – “The feeling you are good at what you do.” For volunteers, the tasks should be designed so that they can be successfully accomplished with little or no training. Hence everyone can consistently contribute lasting value. In a more structured benicerelationship, the knowledge levels can be higher, though the underlying need to be successful remains.

RelatednessThe feeling of connection to other people.”  Volunteers generally are active in a group or other situation where they are contributing in ways that makes the whole more than the sum of the parts.

This connection and interaction with others who are contributing helps keep the efforts focused and positive.

Volunteers are engaged and active as long as they are successfully contributing. Volunteers can and do vote with their feet; they don’t have to come back so every interaction is an opportunity to build a relationship and forward progress or a step towards the exit. A positive, productive, valuable experience is the heart of a successful relationship. Ask yourself –Would your employees come to work tomorrow if they weren’t paid? Would you want to donate your time to your organization?


VolunteerTop Talent Insider: What are five major leadership learnings that you took away from being in multiple volunteer roles throughout your career? Why are these lessons game changers for managers who want to attract the best talent?


Christine Schoaff:  

Trust – Everyone wants to come to work and succeed! As a manager, you job is to organize, prioritize and communicate to make that possible. Many managers I know think that the job description is “to get things done.” Though true to a point, the game changes when you realize that you get more things done by engaging and activating others to do great work. You have to generate bidirectional trust so that you can effectively delegate tasks and see results flow from work others are doing.

Communicate – The more people know, the more they can contribute. Open the conversations to allow dialog. People become committed to ideas and plans that they helped create. With the Agile framework and other continuous improvement methodologies, communication is the foundation for success.

Hire “tough” and stay involved – Getting and keeping good people is an investment worth your time. Stay involved with them. There are always more opportunities than you will be able to take advantage of, knowing which ones resonate with your staff helps you find a direction that everyone can be excited about.  Note that hiring “tough” is an on-going process, people and business needs change so regularly evaluate if there is a good fit. If not, you can work collaboratively to improve that. Overall, you manage people so set your priorities to spend time on this task!

Focus It is important to know what the priorities are! If you have many, you can still only work on the topmost ones. Put a strategic plan in place so that you have the framework for discussing tactical requests. Use this as a basis to say yes as often as possible to all key stakeholders. It is easier in the long run to be good at specific things. Identifying the “highest point of contribution” requires determination and clarity, as Greg McKeown  asserts. Helping your staff reach that point is a gift only you can provide through the strategy and structure of the groups’ goals and activities.

Continuously improve – People are comfortable talking about improving services, features and easily measured activities. It is important to look for these opportunities and to capitalize on them. What I have learned is that there are also professional areas and skills that everyone can assess, evaluate and possibly improve.  According to The Carrot Principle, by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, more than 50% of employees are dissatisfied. Are you one of them? Do you know why you are satisfied or not? How about your employees? What can you do to change the situation? To attract and keep the best talent, you need to be open to always striving to be the best yourself as well as allowing others around you to be the best.



Top Talent Insider: Thinking as a successful entrepreneur [which you are in addition to being an avid volunteer] — if we should treat employees as volunteers then how should we treat our clients/customers?

Christine Schoaff: As with the talent equation, a client/vendor relationship needs to be a winning proposition for both sides. As an entrepreneur, I focus on providing services that help others become successful. I treat my clients as strategic partners. Our relationship has to benefit us both and complement one another. Retaining great talent and great clients involves focusing on how everyone can contribute and succeed together.

Your clients can be long term strategic partners. You should both have similar target audiences while offering different services or features that complement one another, helping to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts that really delights the customer. Your goal is to amplify and enable a common value proposition.


Melissa Llarena

Melissa helps movers and shakers up to those in the corner office rediscover what makes them unique so that they can land their dream job in a forward-thinking company where their ideas are listened to, valued, and supported.

She brings insights from having worked in 16-business units (including Human Resources) in NY, Paris, and London. Additionally, in her former corporate career, she worked on billion-dollar brands for P&G and on IBM for Ogilvy & Mather. Later, as the founder and CEO of Career Outcomes Matter, Melissa created a 3-step “sellable strengths” process which has been the centerpiece of her clients' results.

Melissa applies this method consistently to support mid-level professionals up to the c-suite to get into Fortune Global 500 organizations and agencies. She studied Psychology at NYU and earned her MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

Leave a Comment