Interview: Havas Digital Canada President, Alex Chepovetsky, on Employee Retention and How “What Binds Us Together is People”

Every month, as part of our Ari Agency Monthly Theme, we’ll interview an expert to help explore the big issues that matter to all of us in our work lives. 

Alex Chepovetsky

When we thought of whom we could talk to about our theme this month – Employee Retention and Happiness – it took no time for Alex Chepovetsky, President at Havas Worldwide Digital Canada, to come top of mind.

That’s not just because he has extensive experience in senior management positions, having led divisions for Organic, Sapient Canada, CGI Interactive and now as President at Havas. It’s that with each move he makes, he has a team of people who follow.

Alex has helped build several successful digital businesses and his current core team has been together for 12+ years, with rest of the senior team ranging from four to eight years. Impressive stuff.

When you talk to Alex you understand why he’s earned a reputation for being beloved by his employees. He’s the kind of person who puts you immediately at ease and makes you feel like you could comfortably tell him anything.

A man with that ability has insights into how to retain employees. So we spoke to him about the current wave of employee retention strategies, how he ensures his employees stay around, and asked him to offer some advice on what to do if you find you’re no longer happy in your job.

Employee retention and happiness has become a real hot topic. Why do you think it’s become such a big priority for companies to figure out how to make sure their workers stay?  

It has to do with talent. People that truly think out of the box, or are passionate about their knowledge, are hard to get. There are only so many A-teams in the world. Those are the people who make a difference in your business. So those are the people you try to keep.

A lot of companies – like Google, Facebook, and others – are trying to keep that kind of talent with unique perks like free lunches, on-site laundry service and more. Do you think those strategies work?

Whenever you have these employee retention tactics, they don’t work over a long period of time. Because if you have to retain someone you’re breaking the basic rule: we’re all adults. If somebody wants to go, you have to assume they did not make that decision lightly, and you have to let them go. Because what that means is that they’re not happy. Just because you offer an extra ten-thousand dollars, that doesn’t make a difference.

So what does work?

You have to coalesce around a vision. You have to ask, “What binds us together in this beyond a paycheck?” What binds us together, in my mind, is people. Working with smart people, doing a good job. And that also means voicing your displeasure and dissatisfaction. Sometimes it’s project related. Sometimes it’s team related. So, for example, if you’re an employee that’s too busy and you can’t handle the workload, you have to stand up and scream. It’s not a failure to say you’re too busy.

That can be a hard thing for employees to do, because they’re afraid of consequences. How do you ensure employees feel comfortable being honest about their struggles or other conflicts?

To me it’s about people in a leadership team having relationships with the people that work for them, and the other way around. That’s driven by open communications: a truly open door policy. 

Open door policies can often wind up being empty promises or lip service – whether it’s because the manager isn’t actually available, or employees are too afraid to talk to them. How do you create an open door policy that works?

My favorite way is a basic walkabout. It’s putting the email or phone call on hold, taking the time to grab random people, and walking down the street with them to Jimmy’s to get a coffee. Then you ask: “How’s it going? What’s happening? How you feeling? Is there anything bothering you?” There’s also things like being a little more human. You see people are sick, you ask “How are you feeling?” Or, it goes a long way when someone’s parent or child is sick, and you let them out of a meeting early. People will remember that.

You alluded a bit to this idea that employees need to take responsibility and speak up for themselves when things are wrong. Is it fair to say you feel that an employee’s happiness is their own responsibility as much as the company’s?

Exactly. You come in, and you get a job, you start working, your first three months is the honeymoon. And then there’s the marriage. And the marriage will have its ups and downs. It’s about how you deal with that. How do you deal with adversity in your everyday life with your team and with a client? And that’s what gives you life experience. Let’s be honest. It’s not a Kindergarten, it’s a job. A job that pays the bills. You’re here to make money. You’re here to advance your career. “Do you do your job well?” Are you good at your craft? Are you getting better at your craft?” Those are important tenets of being grown-ups. It’s not about spreadsheet management giving you responsibility. It has to come from within.

What should employees do if companies aren’t giving them reason to stay?

If the company is not giving you what you want, the question becomes do you know what you want? You have to know that. It is up to the individual to know, “This is where I want my career to go. This is what I want to be when I grow up.” And then, “How do I make that happen?” My job is to listen to that. As a manager, you keep an open heart and an open mind. It’s like that line from Friday Night Lights: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

And if an employee figures out what they want, and they won’t be able to find it at their current company? What would be your advice to them?

Find another job. The time goes by really fast. The quarters go by really fast. If you’re not happy, if you’re not learning, if you’re stuck? Get out. I know that’s easier said than done, of course, but that would be my best advice. It’s your life. It’s nobody’s else. The corporation does not own you. You have to love what you do.

Bonus Content: How to Hire and Keep Winning Talent

Andrew Bennett, Global CEO and Chief Strategy Officer of Havas Worldwide: