The Proven Way LinkedIn Keeps Its Tech Talent

May 10, 2017

It was the spring of 2015 and LinkedIn’s technical teams were feeling the heat. Competitors were aggressively recruiting engineers and too often the managers and leaders only learned about an employee's career aspirations when they were headed out the door.

The team needed to find a new way to make sure employees felt valued, engaged and heard. In other words, managers needed to do a better job of showing the love to their employees.

VP of HR Erin Earle joined forces with LinkedIn’s head of engineering Kevin Scott to do just that. Together they set out on a mission to assess top talent across the company’s engineering and operations teams, understand the flight risk of this group and develop plans to make sure they stayed. The Love Bus Tour was born.

“The Love Bus Tour was was rooted in the art and science of motivation and developed by members of the engineering HR business partner team (HRBP),” explains Erin.

“The thinking was that if senior leaders had coordinated skip-level conversations with top engineers to recognize their contributions and understand their aspirations, and then take actions accordingly, then those employees would ‘feel the love’ and become more excited about their future at LinkedIn and less likely to leave.” In other words, by proactively having career conversations, they’d have the opportunity to get ahead of a person’s decision to leave.

Spoiler alert: it worked.

By the end of 2015, the engineers who were part of this effort had an attrition rate of 8%, significantly lower than the rest of the engineering organization at 13%. In Kevin Scott’s words, “We have amazing folks doing incredible work and we want to keep them. This conversation gave us the reminder that we need to constantly focus on listening to and learning from our teams to keep them engaged.”

The following year, the teams expanded this effort. They engaged more engineers and invested more heavily in training managers to lead retention conversations. Not only did participants have lower attrition compared to non-participants again (5.5% vs. 9.2%), but they reported significantly higher job satisfaction and manager effectiveness too.  

Here’s how they achieved these results:

7 Key Steps in Building LinkedIn’s Engineering Retention Program - Year 1

1. Identify program participants.

With over 2,000 engineers at LinkedIn, prioritizing whom to engage was a key first step. The team chose top performers who had “exceeded” or “far exceeded” expectations the previous year. They completed 310 conversations in the first year.

2. Get manager buy-in through in-person workshops and written communication.

These 310 high performers were managed by more than 200 different people, so it was critical to get a commitment from these managers to engage and invest time in understanding the big picture.

Kevin set the stage for the managers by hosting a “Managing in a Competitive Hiring Market” workshop where he discussed the difficulty in getting top talent in the first place. He shared his own career story and explained how it’s the manager’s responsibility to inspire employees to keep contributing at LinkedIn. Attendees became more in touch with their own reasons for staying and received some guidance on how to lead career conversations.

Following the workshop, Kevin communicated the specific goals and responsibilities of the Love Bus initiative to all managers via email.

3. Send personalized thank-you from head of engineering.

Each top performer received a personalized card from Kevin thanking them for their contribution to the company. This genuine and almost zero-cost gesture from a senior leader had real impact; some proud recipients even shared images of the recognition on social media.

4. Facilitate conversations between top performing engineers and senior leaders. 

Erin’s team of HRBPs then coordinated the one-on-one meetings between these engineers and senior executives by prioritizing highest flight risk conversations first. They steps they took were:

Preparing managers and executives for the outreach. Managers were responsible for informing the selected employees that they were being recognized and that an executive would be reaching out. Erin’s team of HRBPs provided a suggested script to managers as well as to the executives who sent the calendar invites.

Creating a conversation guide. To ensure consistency across leaders, Erin’s team drafted talking points and FAQs. The objective was to cover five main points during the conversations:

“You’re on our radar” -  explain their commitment to excellence is getting noticed.

“Thank you” – show gratitude for their key contributions.

“You’re critical to us” – convey their importance to the organization.

“My door’s open” – remind them that questions or concerns are always welcome.

“Tell me why LinkedIn” – ask what keeps them at LinkedIn and what would make them leave.

Suggested questions to uncover potential issues were:

5. Analyze conversations and develop personalized action plans. 

Leaders captured their conversations and reported what actions, if any, would be needed to retain the employee. They also assessed each employee’s flight-risk and impact on the business if they were to leave.

Together with the Talent Analytics team, the engineering leadership and HRBP teams then analyzed the information, aggregated common themes, and built talent plans around the engineers. If an employee expressed a strong interest in building X or learning Y, for example, she might then rotate into a different role to get that desired experience.

Results in Year 1: Showing the love reduced attrition

It was progress, but the bi-annual employee survey still revealed 25% of employees hadn’t had a meaningful career conversation with their managers. “We realized we needed to do a better job preparing and training managers to have these conversations.” says Erin, “It was especially important because many of our managers are early in their careers (70% are millennials) and thus hadn’t had a lot the experience of leading through these types of conversations.”

Enhancing the program in Year 2 - more participants, better manager training and deeper analytics

The following year in 2016, the team expanded participants to all engineers, not just the top performers. They piloted this approach in the largest group within engineering and completed 522 conversations by year end.

The two big additional steps to enhance the program in the second year were:

6. Invest in research-backed training to improve the consistency and quality of conversations.

“We learned from the first year that we wanted to go deeper into why these conversations are so important. Our hypothesis was that if we focused on latest research on employee engagement and motivation, we could make the next training even more relevant and compelling to an engineering audience,” says Erin.

So the team partnered with Learning & Development to develop the most scientifically based training possible. The first hour introduced managers to cutting-edge research into the neuroscience of engagement and how it relates to career conversations, and the second hour provided the opportunity to role-play with peers.

The training worked because it was directly tied to research, it was delivered in a language engineers could understand, and it was short.  “Our engineers have a high bar for how they spend an hour of their time. Showing them the power they have in these conversations really resonated with them.”

They also created more a comprehensive manager guide to supplement the in-person training.

7. Dig even deeper in the talent analytics data

One of the learnings from Love Bus was that the intial feedback was not captured in a data-driven way. In the second year, Erin's team took an approach with data in mind. They equipped leaders with the tools, questions and resources to be successful, tracking engagement, retention, flight risk, what puts engineers at risk, what factors keep engineers, etc. With this, they were able to better understand the talent’s tendencies (instead of relying on anecdotal feedback) and take action.

“We were able to see what was going on and what people were worried about at every level” shares Mohak Shroff, VP Product Engineering. “It brought a depth of knowledge about the health of our organization that we realized we had been missing for years. Combined with our employee survey, we then better understood trends and where we had opportunity to improve.”

We probed and tracked manager perceived engagement levels, connection to LinkedIn mission/vision, factors driving flight risk (compensation, leadership, commute, workload, team dynamic, opportunity/career path), factors influencing people to stay (team, work/life balance, compensation, culture, company vision, projects, leadership.), manager’s confidence in ability to develop engineer, and where the engineer sees their career in 2 years (promoted, start-up, starting their own start-up, new/different geo location, etc) to name just a few. By asking the right questions and soliciting the right information, we gained incredible insights.

We created scorecards for each employee and aggregated all of the information for talent planning. So for example, if a new mobile app project starts, they can factor in what they know about certain employees’ mobile aspirations when assembling the team.

Results in Year 2: Lower attrition, more meaningful conversations and improved engagement

Once again, engineers who participated had lower attrition than those did not. Participants were leaving at a slower rate (-3.7%) compared to engineers who didn’t participate and we saw an overall reduction in Engineering attrition Y/Y.

The engineering leadership team credits the initiative with positively impacting retention.

 “It worked because it reinforced that we cared about our team and were listening to them,” says Mohak.

Employee engagement lifted too, per the semi-annual employee survey results. Participants reported significantly higher manager effectiveness compared to the previous year as well as compared to non-participants.

Employees also reported (not a surprise) that more meaningful career conversations were taking place. This is crucial because the majority of engineers stated career growth (#1 answer) is precisely why they stay at LinkedIn. Without these career conversations, career growth stagnates. Identifying the key drivers and acting on them accordingly really is the secret to our success.

4 Tips for Building an Employee Retention Program

Erin reflected on what she learned from the two-year retention effort and these four tips emerged:

  • Ensure ownership from the business. The engineering leadership team played a central role in the program’s success, from hosting workshops and reinforcing the message, to participating in training to reviewing analytics. “This definitely wouldn’t have worked if it was an HR-only initiative,” cautions Erin.

  • Leverage internal expertise to deliver the right training. When the team realized the need to improve manager training in the second year, they leaned on Learning & Development colleagues to get the material just right. “We knew we had to make it worthwhile, so we heavily invested in making sure we nailed it,” says Erin.

  • Partner closely with data analytics to inform decisions at every step. In addition to the right training on the front end, “You need to have the right data on the back end,” she adds. “Working closely with our analytics partners was essential to understanding the dynamics of the organization and making good decisions.”

  • Stay hyper-focused. “With so many things vying for our time, it’s easy to keep getting caught up in daily reactive work,” says Erin. “To pull off a forward-thinking project such as this requires serious discipline from both HR and the business.”

Parting Thought

The Love Bus program is a reminder that employees want to feel they matter and are valued at work. Taking an interest in them through meaningful career conversations is something that every manager can and should do. LinkedIn has learned that by developing the relevant tools and training for its managers and focusing on quality conversations, it has improved its ability to retain and engage its highly sought-after engineering talent.

This program, would not have been possible without the work, commitment and support of the team of HR Business Partners including Danielle Peterson, Sarah Hickey, Ozden Onder, Sam Hamlin and Lori Allen.

* image by Jo Chou

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