Cracking the code to keeping talent


Brett van Aswegen, CEO of short-term lending company Wonga, shares how he is working on creating a company culture that encourages his team to find motivation from within.

In today’s competitive business landscape, the art of retaining highly skilled talent has become a strategic imperative for companies across various sectors. This is particularly true for highly skilled sectors such as engineering and data science.

The ability to attract and, more importantly, retain stellar employees is a challenge amplified by numerous factors in South Africa’s business environment. From the scarcity of skilled professionals due to issues in the education pipeline to the alarming ‘brain drain’ phenomenon, where thousands of skilled individuals emigrate out of South Africa annually, the pool of talent within the country is shrinking at an alarming rate.

“To compound these challenges, the rise of the work-from-home culture has opened the doors to global competition for cheap local talent,” says Brett van Aswegen, CEO of short term lender Wonga. “International firms, lured by favourable foreign exchange rates, are increasingly poaching South Africa’s brightest minds, exacerbating wage pressures on local businesses.”

The power of engagement in talent retention

“Many companies resort to using money to try to motivate and retain people, and annual performance incentives are certainly effective in this regard,” explains Brett. “However, studies have shown that for people involved in tasks that require cognitive skills, decision-making, creativity and higher order thinking, monthly salaries can be a negative motivator.

“There is little to no upside benefit to intrinsic motivation if you overpay this person, but there is a downside negative impact on motivation if you underpay them,” he continues. “Ensuring employees are correctly benchmarked and fairly remunerated against the market is imperative, however, what do you do when skilled employees in high demand can always get a higher salary?”

The answer for him has been to focus on building the company culture around cultivating intrinsic motivation in his team.

He provides tips on how to accomplish this:

Autonomy: What the business wants to achieve is set at the executive level. As far as possible, decisions outlining how the strategy will be executed can be rolled down to the relevant teams.

Treat people like adults and partners, giving them the space to direct critical decisions within a collectively accountable team. To make this work, work hard to establish psychological safety to support candid conversations, and be prepared for mistakes and the learnings they bring. Tell people that if they aren’t making mistakes, they aren’t trying hard enough.

Mastery: Have a growth mindset to enable people to develop and grow, as their success builds a company’s success. Implement development ladders, which will allow individuals to manage their own growth at their pace, and follow this up with executive level performance and interim growth reviews of each individual in the company. This recognises growth and avoids delays in levelling people up.

Purpose: Be a purpose-driven organisation where your purpose forms the foundation of your culture, allowing employees to deeply connect with why your business matters to your customers. Every member of your team understands the problem you are trying to solve for your customers and the impact this can have in your customers’ lives, fostering real meaning in the work they do.

“Nurturing company culture and employee engagement is not just a trendy HR initiative,” he concludes. “It is a strategic necessity for retaining highly skilled talent because when employees are motivated intrinsically and are aligned with organisational values, businesses can thrive in the toughest of times.”


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