Why Putting Your People First Makes Good Business Sense

Kansas City business consultant and expert Leigh Branham has written three books on how to find top talent and more importantly, how to retain them.

When it comes to employee engagement, Leigh Branham is a nationally renowned expert. In addition to writing three best-selling books on the subject, Branham is regularly quoted in Fortune, Businessweek and The Associated Press on employee retention and workforce trends. As founder and principal of HR consulting firm Keeping the People Inc., Branham helps business leaders in every sector, ranging from small start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, find and retain talent. And it just so happens, he’s based here in Kansas City.


Equipped with a master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri, Branham started his career off in an ad agency but quickly learned advertising was not for him. After heading back to MU for a second master’s in counseling/personnel services, he moved to California and became a college career counselor, and later on, a career transition counselor helping executives find new jobs.

As his career gravitated toward corporate career counseling, Branham found himself designing the employee career development program for an 11,000-employee division of a major defense company, which significantly increased the retention of engineers.

“This was back in the ’90s when the economy was strong and people couldn’t find enough employees,” Branham recalls.

Author Leigh Branham

Shortly thereafter, he and his wife moved back to Kansas City. She accepted a position with Hallmark, and he became vice president of organizational consulting for Right Management Consulting. As leader of the firm’s Talent Management practice in the Heartland region, Branham excelled at executive coaching and employee motivation and retention.

He started collecting best practices for retaining and engaging employees, and used this information to write his first book, “Keeping the People Who Keep You in Business: 24 Ways to Hang on to Your Most Valuable Talent” in 2000. The book offers a battle plan for retaining valuable employees. These 24 strategies are grouped into four basic “keys,” which are: being a company people want to work for; knowing how to select the right employees in the first place; managing the joining-up process; and coaching to maintain commitment.

The success of “Keeping the People” led to a multitude of speaking engagements. After working with Right Management Consulting for 10 years, Branham left the company to start Keeping the People Inc. These days, “I spend about half to one-third of my time doing public seminars and keynote addresses,” he says. “The rest of the time, I’m doing employee engagement surveys for companies, executive coaching and leadership training, as well as a presentation on retaining and engaging the four generations in the workplace.”


Branham’s second book, “The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It’s Too Late,” reveals that although most employers blame staff turnover on the lure of competitors, employees are four times more likely to leave a job due to inner-office conflict.

“A lot of employers take their best workers for granted,” Branham says. “One simple thing I constantly advise managers to do is simply have what I call a ‘reengagement discussion.’ Go to your employees—especially the ones you can’t afford to lose—and tell them, ‘I value you. I would hate to lose you. What can I do for you? I want to make sure you’re happy.’

“Of course you wouldn’t have that conversation with your poor performers; you’d have a different discussion with them,” Branham continues. “The process I teach is not about giving negative feedback, but rather giving neutral feedback. If an employee is late on a continual basis, you don’t say, ‘You’re always late. I need you to be on time.’ Instead, you document what you’ve observed and say, ‘I’ve noticed in the past week you’ve been late three times.’ Then, you describe the consequences of that behavior and how it affects the performance of the company overall. You simply say, ‘If this can’t be corrected, we have no basis for a future relationship.’

“It’s tough feedback, but it’s based on very specific behavior that you have described,” he adds. “Most employers are not paying close enough attention to their employees’ performance to give them that kind of feedback. Some managers are too hands on and micromanage whereas others are too hands off. It’s a common mistake for employers to either over-delegate or under-delegate. You need to find that middle ground.”


Branham published his most recent book, “Re-Engage: How America’s Best Places to Work Inspire Extra Effort in Extraordinary Times,” in 2010, which he co-wrote with Mark Hirschfeld, vice president of BMI Worldwide in Minneapolis. The duo had access to 2.1 million employee engagement surveys collected from business journals representing 44 cities nationwide that host annual competitions for local “Best Places to Work.”

Branham and Hirschfeld identified commonalities among the best places to work as well frequent mistakes made by companies that scored low on the list. “It was very clear from employees’ comments what the best companies’ leaders were doing and what the low-scoring companies were not doing,” Branham says. “We narrowed it down to six universal drivers for employee engagement.”


1. Caring, competent and engaging senior leaders – According to Braham, these individuals are competent, visionary and clear about where the company is going, but they also care about the welfare of their employees. He cites Doug Conant, president and CEO of Campbell Soup Co., and Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos, as strong examples.

2. Effective managers who keep employees aligned and engaged - Effective managers take cues on how to properly treat employees from their senior leaders and are strong communicators who provide clear expectations about their employees’ performances as well as frequent feedback.

3. Effective teamwork at all levels - Companies that scored low on the “Best Places to Work” list maintain a rigid, “We Say So” work environment, and lower-tier employees feel completely isolated from senior leaders. “At the best places to work, we’re seeing a breakdown of barriers and a lot of interaction and communication between top and frontline employees,” Branham says.

4. Job enrichment and professional growth - Employees need to be placed in jobs where they feel challenged but are still perfect for the position. “This means good employers are very careful about how employees fit into their roles,” Branham says. “They assess their skills carefully, interview more thoroughly and provide opportunities for advancement.”

5. Valuing employee contributions - “Employees who are paid in proportion to their efforts feel valued,” Branham says. “If they receive frequent praise and recognition or a simple ‘thank you for doing your job,’ they feel valued. If they are given the right tools to do their job and are given a voice in the kinds of decisions that affect them, they feel even more valued.”

6. Concern for employees’ wellbeing - Employers who care about their employees’ health and wellbeing tend to have fewer personnel issues. “Something we find in the best places to work is the mentality at the senior level that if you give to employees, they will give back,” Braham says. “The worst companies’ belief system is that if you give to employees, they will take advantage of it.”

Most companies underestimate the power of employee surveys, Branham says. “Many employees feel over-surveyed,” he admits. “They should not happen more often than once every 18 months. You don’t have to do everything the employees come up with, but you should listen to the things getting in the way of employees getting their work done, especially the ones that could lead to greater performance and achievement of company objectives.

“The biggest mistake an employer can make is doing a survey and not communicating the results to the employees or taking action,” he adds. “It’s like pulling the pin on the hand grenade and not throwing.”

Story by Kathryn Jones