Darrell K. Smith, CAE
Darrell K. Smith, PhD, CIH, CAE, is president and CEO of the National Waste & Recycling Association in Arlington, Virginia.
With the search for top talent highly competitive, many organizations have focused on benefits, remote work, and compensation. However, focusing on a clear purpose and ensuring staff buy-in will help attract and retain staff.
Read an article on workplaces or talk to any expert on the subject, and you will find a wealth of advice about retaining employees. We constantly hear about the Great Resignation and a fed-up workforce. The advice usually instructs leaders to let employees choose their own hours, accommodate their personal needs, pay them more, help them deal with family issues, offer unlimited vacation, and dear God, yes, let them work from home.
What all this well-intended advice lacks is an appreciation for why employees come to work in the first place. People need a purpose, a cause, a team they care about, an adversary to defeat. If you have these in place, your employees will care very little about the trappings of the modern workplace.
The Great Resignation is not about benefits. If your employees are leaving, your reason for being is broken. This is not the employee’s fault. It is your fault as a leader. You must figure out what you are fighting for, how you can really motivate your people, and what you can do to show them a guiding star.
Purposes, causes, teams, and adversaries have nothing to do with modernity. Since ancient times, armies have given their lives for this flavor of workplace benefit, and people work very hard today when these elements are in place. Swell their hearts and souls, and they will swell your legislative and regulatory successes, and your membership will grow.
Here at the National Waste & Recycling Association, we represent the private sector of the waste and recycling industry. We in the industry think of ourselves as the original environmentalists. People who work at NWRA are dedicated to making the world a cleaner and healthier place, but even that is not enough to keep employees engaged. To find true purpose, employees need to feel they are growing in their profession. They need to be able to voice an idea and see it grow into a successful outcome. They need to win.
People need a purpose, a cause, a team they care about, an adversary to defeat. If you have these in place, your employees will care very little about the trappings of the modern workplace.
In recent years, our wins have included: passing state legislation in over 30 states that encourages motorists to slow down for waste collection vehicles and receiving an association-specific exemption from Department of Transportation regulations. During the pandemic, we achieved hundreds of state victories to ensure the waste industry continued to operate while citizens were under quarantine.
We have also won accolades and awards. We received ASAE’s Power of A Silver Award in 2019, a Gold Award in 2020, and the prestigious Summit Award in 2021. The Energy and Environment Foundation declared us the Global Waste Management Association of the Year in 2021. Also in 2021, we were certified as a Great Place to Work.
My employees know that we are here to win. We are not scared of competition, and we are prepared to go against any adversary for the sake of our industry. Employees also know if you cannot put your work on a chart and show progress, the boss will have little interest in your blather.
If all this sounds harsh and a good way to run employees off to one of the many associations just down the street in DC, consider this. In 2015 and 2016, prior to instilling purpose in our work, the turnover rate at NWRA was above 30 percent. In 2021, it was zero.
Our mission statement says that we will “promote and protect the waste and recycling industry through the strategic application of award-winning, results driven advocacy.” Our employees are helping us do just that.
We have a team that likes each other, holds one another accountable, and is bonded so tightly it sometimes scares the boss. Good teams are formed by suffering and winning together.
I encourage the association community to think more about purpose. After all, people engaged in a purposeful work will add plaques to your walls and show your members the real value of an association.