Article: Leaders and attrition: A Napoleonic fable


Leaders and attrition: A Napoleonic fable

Even inspired leadership might not be sufficient to hold the workforce together in a crisis. Here's a case study

How much attrition would worry you? How about 78 per cent, or 160,000 employees, in six months? Napoleon’s Moscow campaign in 1812 is a reminder that even inspired leadership can fail if a campaign is ill-advised and mismanaged.

Military history case studies do not always translate into management lessons, Sun Tzu notwithstanding. The parameters and realities are, more often than not, fundamentally different. Employees of modern companies are also not called upon to die in the line of duty. Having said that, the 1812 campaign is remarkable for the numbers that deserted Napoleon on the way to Russia and back.

Napoleon invaded Russia with an estimated total of 650,000 men in June 1812 and reached Moscow. He returned to Paris in December that year, with 38,000. Barring the numbers chipped away by disease, starvation and combat, an estimated 160,000 men deserted on either leg. There is some variation on the estimated figures, so these are approximate. That means only 22 per cent healthy men stayed with him till the end.

Mass attrition is a common problem at certain points in the economic cycle. In 2013, India was expected to top employee attrition rates globally with 26.9 per cent, according to The Economic Times. In 2014, rising attrition in the IT sector here was triggering alarm bells and has continued, with Infosys hovering around the 18.7 per cent mark.

Further afield, retail and IT sectors in the US usually see high attrition, while manufacturing sees the least, according to Business Insider. Attrition is also high in insurance. At the time of the survey, the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance company had the dubious distinction of employees staying on for an average of eight months. Massachusetts Mutual is no small fry; if a Fortune 500 company can’t keep its average employee for more than half a year, that’s cause for serious evaluation.

At the other end of the scale we have Eastman Kodak, where the average employee stays for 20 years. Over the period of the survey, in 2013, it had mixed results on the performance front, with a 14 per cent decline in sales, at $2.35 billion, but $96 million increase in profits from the previous year.

Clearly, while there is sector and economy bias in attrition rates, leadership, company culture and other factors do make a difference in bucking the trend.

The traditional wisdom is inspirational leadership counts for a lot in holding up employee spirit and retaining the workforce, particularly in crisis situations. Napoleon, as history records, was extraordinarily good at what he did. His personal charisma and leadership skills were phenomenal. Long after the 1812 catastrophe, he returned to France from exile and single-handedly persuaded an entire army, sent to arrest him, to join him instead. People like him would be the comeback kids, the financial wizards and corporate empire builders of today, and employees would flock to their personal brand. So what went wrong?

An impossible campaign. Once in a while, a successful leader invests in a campaign that better advisors would caution against. Napoleon decided the Russia campaign was necessary to stabilize his European empire. It is even possible that, by that stage in his career, he had permitted his brand name to get to his head.

Abercrombie & Fitch had a long history of perfectly executed ad campaigns till 2002, when it released a new, high-profile line of t-shirts. The problem: it relied on a series of ad campaigns with slogans such as “Two Wongs can make it White” and other lines which were so unbelievably racist they were regarded as spoof at the beginning. As customers protested and boycotted the brand, and Asian-American employees quit, A&F could have bowed out graciously. Instead, it referred to its brand name to essentially say its word trumped public opinion.

Misapplied resources. Napoleon could not draw on the entire bulk of his considerable resources, in material and men, for the campaign, because he was committed in other parts of Europe: Spain, Scandinavia and later, Poland. The general rule is: one does not fight on several fronts at once. That is, never bank on several smaller projects that might eat into the big one.

Emotional commitment. Paraphrasing another, later, great Frenchman, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. Similarly, there is no campaign or project that can’t be junked if it is necessary to cut your losses and run. In the autumn of 1812, Napoleon lost nearly 200,000 men in the Battle of Borodino. By the time he reached Moscow, his men were not at full strength, his logistical chain was in tatters and the entire campaign had become a nightmare. At such a point, the leadership should seek to quit the project and retain what is left of human and financial resources. Napoleon kept on. The Russians followed a scorched-earth policy and denied the French precious resources. The Russians also burned Moscow before abandoning it. Napoleon did get the capital, but it was a heap of ruins. Meanwhile, his opponent, Tsar Alexander I, who history does not remember as a military genius, abandoned his capital – an act which traditionally meant his side had lost – and waited out the winter.

Moral: even inspired leadership might find it difficult to be objective about a cherished campaign. Employees, on the other hand, whose livelihood is more on the line than ego, never lose their common sense. Genius or not, a leader who falls in love with his image of the world and forgets reality will, inevitably, face desertion. Here’s an instance where, during an improving economy, a retailer faced increased attrition, from 20 per cent to 30 per cent. Reason? Senior management was focused on turnover and did not craft an appropriate policy to retain talent. With other options available, employees quit.

Great corporate legends are built on individual attributes, including vision, leadership and charisma. But they are not the only glue that holds and inspires the workforce. Realism, the ability to be flexible in the decision-making process and the willingness to acknowledge that keeping the organization’s resources intact is more important than a single campaign are also important. In their absence, even a genius can’t keep his flock together.

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Topics: Leadership, #Retention

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