How to Retain Top Talent

Tips for Managers

By Zubin Irani, cPrime CEO

If your business or company has survived the worst of the recession so far, don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. The recovery is going to be a perfect storm of employee turnover. A workforce that has maintained the mantra of “I’m just lucky to have a job” will be quick to change its tune as the market improves. To make matters worse, the first wave of baby boomers will retire next year, creating even more opportunities for your top talent.

It’s your job to keep your key team members out of recruiters’ sights. Lose just one middle manager and you’re looking at a hole the size of their annual salary in your bottom line. The disruption of workflow, loss of institutional knowledge and inevitable decrease in morale has the potential to leave you struggling to keep up in crucial years to come.

There’s only so much that HR can do – especially if raises and incentives don’t fit into your pre-recovery bottom line. It’s up to you to find creative ways to keep your high performers engaged and committed. Here’s your plan:

Identify them if you haven’t

The Pareto principle, or the law of the vital few, states that 80% of the effects in a given situation are a result of 20% of the causes. Applied to your staff-output ratio, typically 80% of your business is generated by 20% of your employees. You know who your superstars are: Make a list.

Recognize burnout

A top performer won’t just check out; it’s not in their nature. These are self-actualized people, used to creating opportunities for themselves. When a business is in triage mode and promotions, raises and bonuses are not forthcoming, a standout employee’s first response will often be to engage managers and pick up extra tasks. If their efforts are not acknowledge and validated, they will eventually check out.

The signs of disengagement are subtle and can be hard to gage: it’s really the difference between great work and good work. What was once a torrent of ideas slows to a trickle, sick days lead to tardiness and long lunches – disenchantment ensues. By that point it’s too late, and even last ditch offers from HR are too little too late. Prevention is the name of the game.

Do something before it’s too late

Think you have no resources to throw at retention? How about yourself? Communication is the key to keeping everyone engaged, validated and happy.

Break the code of silence

When the business climate is bad, people stop talking. Walking into some offices is like walking into a funeral – with people waiting on the edge of their seats for the next round of lay offs. If your primary message of encouragement has been “just keep your heads down, things will get better,” it’s time to change that. Acknowledge the challenge at hand, express gratitude for sacrifices and preserve the sanctity of optimism.

Take a load off

Never underestimate the power of sitting down to talk with your employees one-on-one. It doesn’t take much – even just once a month is enough to open the communication channels. Surveys and suggestion boxes are great, but there’s no substitute for a little face time.

Cultivate a ‘thank you’ culture

Make sure that you and your managers always take a moment to appreciate peoples’ work — that kind of consciousness trickles down. When an employee submits a deliverable or hits a sales goal, be sure to personally recognize their achievement and thank them for a job well done. Staff need to feel appreciated and rewarded – it’s only human.

Define clear expectations and establish a path to promotion

Unclear or unarticulated expectations increase insecurity and stress. Job performance guidelines are crucial; they give people something to measure themselves up against and provide a platform for evaluation. Set timelines for achieving goals that will lead to future opportunities. Expectations provide both a framework for feedback and a reason to stay engaged and on board.

Question job design

Research shows that staff gravitate toward the tasks and responsibilities at which they excel. It also says that people derive the most satisfaction from exercising their strengths. Are your employees good at every aspect of their jobs? Do they have talents that don’t fit into their current job description? Increase functional responsibility through talent and skill utilization: Find out what your people are good at and realign their positions to provide opportunities to shine.

Let’s be honest here…

Are there things about your high performers’ jobs that they would change? Are there things about their jobs that they hate? You should be able to ask these questions and get an honest reply. If you have an outstanding salesperson who finds paperwork aggravating, do something about it. Shift lower-order tasks to departments where turnover won’t be catastrophic for the entire organization.

Provide opportunities for professional growth

Talented employees are always looking for opportunities to increase their skill-set and further their knowledge. If there’s no budget for trainings and seminars, invite them to sit in on high-level meetings. Switch things up and encourage them to rotate through other job functions that interest them. A holistic understanding of the business will give them an appreciation for fellow team members and help them see their place as a valued part of the big picture.

Work with them, not against

If traditional rewards – raises and bonuses — aren’t possible, take a closer look. Non-monetary compensation is sometimes more valuable to high performers than cash or incentives. Talk to your talent and find out if telecommuting on occasion would be appealing. Maybe they’d like to take every other Friday off to spend time with their children, or hit the gym during extended lunches. Be understanding of any needs for lifestyle accommodation – maintaining work/life balance is good for your company’s culture.

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