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Employee Focus


There are many factors that contribute to a company’s success, but one of the most important is the often overlooked role of retention of top performers. While meeting or exceeding company goals might be seen as a sign of loyalty and commitment to the company, appearances can be deceiving. High-achievers are producing great results not because they are committed to the company but because it is their nature. They thrive on doing excellent work.

In reality, however, many superstars are likely feeling overworked and under-appreciated due to de-layering and budget cuts. As a result, it’s likely they are keeping their resumes up-to-date. Promises of future promotions and bonus pay are just not enough incentive for today’s high achievers to remain loyal. And yet, companies make this fatal mistake. They assume a lack of loyalty in star performers will be evident. It isn’t. Even with no clear evidence of a lack of engagement by top performers, your business pipeline could become merely a pipedream. The good news is that leaders can review practices and make the necessary changes to engage top employees today so they won’t be spending time and money replacing them tomorrow.

Retaining Top Performers

The reactions of most leaders to the economic crisis spawned a pervasive sense of betrayal among employees. The deep cuts, pressure to perform with less, and lack of recognition have sapped commitment. When companies lose their star performers, they are also likely to experience:

  1. Shortages of specific skill sets – As the economy recovers, certain skill sets including technical proficiencies, specialized sales and marketing knowledge, and strategic decision-making will be difficult to find.
  2. Increasing gaps in the leadership pipeline – Succession preparation that includes mentoring, sponsorship, and global leadership skills continues to take a backseat to improving productivity. 
  3. Paying top dollar for experienced new hires – Organizations that cut back on training during the business slowdown will pay more to hire trained, experienced people. 
  4. Lack of innovation – In 2010, the United States dropped from first to 11th place in innovation. The push for efficiency has suffocated creativity. This decline in innovation will continue as high-achievers search for new opportunities with inventive companies instead of reworking existing products and processes with their current employers.
Assessing the Damage

It is difficult to assess the workplace environment, especially if employees are uncomfortable speaking up. As a result, leaders probably don’t get the information they need by simply asking people. As an alternative, consider holding focus groups with skilled external facilitators or sending out anonymous surveys that include open-ended questions.

In addition to measuring engagement, it is important to ask top employees what they need in order to recommit to the company. While standard engagement surveys rate satisfaction with the organization and management performance, obtaining additional data creates a clearer picture of the corporate culture. When companies ask more probing questions, they learn much about the morale and loyalty of their people. Some examples:

  • What do you most like about your job?
  • What does your manager do for you that you appreciate?
  • What is the company doing that you think is smart?
  • What disappoints you? 
  • What doesn’t make sense? 
  • What do you think management should do?
  • What would energize and engage you?
  • Do you trust this survey will lead to positive changes in the organization? Why or why not?

Of course, asking these questions is not enough. Be prepared to act on what you learn. No one likes to share their ideas only to have their input ignored. As you implement retention strategies based on input, it’s good to monitor the results of your efforts over time through additional surveys.

Engage Your Best Employees

Start by acknowledging that employees are entitled to be angry and suspicious due to the losses and disregard they have experienced. According to Dennis and Michelle Reina, authors of “Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace,” it is important to identify and acknowledge people’s feelings. Don’t blame the market conditions. Take responsibility and be clear on what you will do in the future to ensure infractions don’t reoccur.

Challenge rationalizations that could lead to further disengagement. Ask managers to examine decisions that could exclude employee input and cut development. Question what led to current “standard practices?” What rules and processes in practice today say, “We don’t trust you?” Help expose faulty thinking based on limited, short-term options.

Create the sense that “we are all in the creation of our future together.” It’s time to ask valued employees for their ideas on how to improve the company. Cultivate a collegial, collaborative atmosphere instead of a competitive one where people enjoy being productive together.

When researching “Wander Women,” my book on female high-achievers in the workplace, I found that today’s high-achievers, regardless of gender, need more than promises of promotions and salary increases to stay committed. To retain your top talent, provide:

  1. Frequent, new challenges – High achievers love to learn and apply themselves to resolving new and complex challenges. Publicly praise their work, giving them a chance to shine.
  2. Praise contribution and value to the team and company – Although they love to be acknowledged for their knowledge and ability, high-achievers need everyone to know that their contribution made an impact. Their work needs to be meaningful as well as efficient.
  3. Flexible work schedules – High-achievers crave autonomy and flexibility. Provide clear goals and expectations. Trust they will complete their commitments on time whether they work in the office or in the park across the street. 
  4. A creative and collaborative work environment – Most high-achievers love to work in environments with an open flow of communication rather than through hierarchies. They enjoy fast-paced climates where innovation is fostered and fun appreciated.
  5. Development opportunities – Even if you can’t afford training programs, you can provide coaching, mentoring and networking. Top performers love to share ideas, debate approaches to current challenges and teach each other.
  6. Increase gender equality – There seems to be a correlation in gender equality to innovation. Eight of the top 10 innovative countries in 2010 also ranked in the top 10 for gender equality. The United States ranked 19th in gender equality. Also, companies that performed the best during the recession had women on their top management teams. Review your hiring and development practices for women. Women add a great deal to innovation and the collaborative environments where high-achievers thrive. 

The time, money and aggravation it takes to replace top performers will end up being much higher than what must be spent to keep these employees happily working for your company. Implementing practices that inspire collaboration, contribution, excitement, fun and trust will engage star performers today so you don’t lose them tomorrow.

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