Retaining Top Talent

In every executive survey that I have read or participated in, senior leaders of organizations list “finding and retaining top talent” as one of the top 3 issues that concern them most as they look to the future. I actually believe that most of these leaders are actually pretty good at attracting top talent to their organizations. In fact, it is not unusual for the CEO or Senior Executive to make the final sales pitch to a top candidate to persuade them to join the company and participate in the mission. That kind of attention and pitch is often all it takes to persuade the candidate to cross over to their team. Unfortunately, that is where many of these leaders and their organizations drop the ball. Highly talented people believe they will be welcomed, valued, inquired of, respected, recognized and rewarded. That is what they heard when you said “we really need someone like you with your skills, background and talent.”

The Corporate Leadership Council recently published their survey findings indicating that 25% of corporation’s top employees are planning to change jobs in the next 12 months. That is up from 10% in 2008. Now, I don’t necessarily think “top employees” in this survey is equivalent to top performers, but those stats are startling nonetheless. I believe the problem is even greater since there are so many top performers and high potentials who are actually under-employed as a result of the economy. Many have accepted jobs in companies or locations that are far different than they preferred. They are doing their best to make a contribution while keeping their eye open for the opportunities for the “right” position. This all seems to be substantiated by the fact that employee loyalty has hit a three year low according to a recent MetLife Study.

So how do organizations drop the ball? It is seldom in the tangible rewards category. In fact a recent PDI Ninth House survey, fewer than 10% of people in this category cited compensation and advancement as critical aspects of the job. Everyone knows that these people can get the tangibles anywhere they go, so they are generally offered competitive packages. So, in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the Security question is answered. When the tangibles are a given, what is truly important becomes the differentiator. Maslow describes these as those things that give Significance, i.e. stimulating, challenging work and an opportunity to have influence in the organization.

What can you do to retain your high performers? Remember the Significance equation. Stay in the recruiting mode for a while longer to ensure the employee has the opportunity to gain Significance. As a hiring manager, you will have to tap into what it is that brings this person Significance. Too often the manager believes they have a marriage arrangement while the newly hired top performer looks at it as an engagement in which they are still evaluating the opportunity.

Communicate with them as a partner rather than as an employee. Stop delivering the unspoken messages that the employee should be grateful you hired them. To a high performer, this is simply demeaning and condescending. Instead of feeling like a partner in the opportunity, the top performer begins to feel like an underling, and they are not likely to tolerate that for long.

Ratchet up the on-boarding process, and actually begin to deliver on your promise. I believe that recovery from failure in this step is near impossible. Let’s face it, even top performers need help getting acclimated to a new organization, and it takes more than an office, a computer and log-in instructions to make that happen. The on-boarding process tells the new employee whether you really understand the change process and whether they truly are valued as you indicated. Make sure your on-boarding process includes actions for 60-90 days and includes specific steps to increase acclimation and engagement. Within the first few weeks a top performer will make the determination whether they are here to stay or ready to move on. The last thing you want to do is to have to win them back when you shouldn’t have lost them in the first place.

Recognize the personal impact of change. Change is hard, even if its change that is chosen. Taking into account added stressors such as transitioning a spouse and/or family, trying to buy or sell a home in this economy, a new city, and the losses associated with moving away from the familiar, and there can be more reasons why this shouldn’t work than why it should. Sensitivity to the personal side of change can go a long way. And remember acclimation to a new community can easily take longer than acclimation to a new job.

The executive who sold them must stay engage with them even if they are not the hiring manager. These top performers and high potentials frequently find themselves reporting to someone who feels threatened by their presence. In these circumstances information is withheld and communication and access is blocked. If there is not a concerted effort on the part of those senior executives who expressed enthusiasm about this candidate, to connect with and engage them, they will disengage and lose their enthusiasm.

Tap the talent. There is nothing more conducive to adapting to a tough change than for the top performers to really like what they do and to be fully engaged in it. Too frequently, the work these employees are given often fails to challenge or stimulate. The organization fails to tap into the expertise, experience and knowledge this person brings to the table, and when these talented individuals do not feel challenged it is not long before they begin to feel undervalued and disrespected and to wonder whether they have made a big mistake. Either way, they begin to question how long they can keep this up just for the money.

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