How To Keep Your "A" Players

How to retain your top-performing employees in a hot job market.
Business Consult September 2018

It’s a nightmare scenario for any business: A star employee suddenly resigns and accepts a position with a competing practice. Out the door goes years of experience, in-depth knowledge of your practice and industry, and perhaps a good number of hard-won patient connections.

Perhaps you were even grooming that top-performing employee for a management role. “When you lose your best employees you lose not only their skills but also their leadership potential,” says David Dye, President of Let's Grow Leaders, a management consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

With the nation’s unemployment level hovering at just over 4 percent, most economists believe the labor market has reached a condition of full employment. As top-quality talent grows scarce, other employers will try harder than ever to lure away your best people.

So how do you keep them from jumping ship? Here are some ideas.

Reward Your Brightest Stars

Employees can be categorized into three classes: slackers, foundationals and high achievers, notes Richard Avdoian, an employee development consultant in St. Louis.

Slackers are easy to spot: They do the bare minimum to collect their paychecks. Foundational employees, in contrast, conscientiously and dependably perform their duties. They serve as reliable anchors for your business. The final category consists of people who outperform. This is the group to focus on. “High achievers are driven go-getters,” says Avdoian. “They are your most productive employees.” These individuals can deliver up to 400 percent more productivity to a workplace than other employees, according to a survey by SAP and Oxford Economics published in the Harvard Business Review (“What High Performers Want at Work,” by Karie Willyerd; November 18, 2014).

Those same top employees are the most likely to have wandering eyes, according to the HBR report, which found that fewer than half of high performers were satisfied with their current duties, and one in five will likely seek a greener pasture in the next six months. “Top performers are often less than content with their jobs,” Avdoian says. “Many want to further their careers by moving on to more promising positions.”

To keep your best people satisfied, make sure you give them the specific things they crave. And what do they want more than anything else? The answer is probably not surprising: Top performers are the most likely to care about compensation, according to the HBR report. Offer them a salary commensurate with their skills and at least equal to what other employers in your region provide.

Beyond Competitive Compensation

Vital as it is, higher pay is not the only tool for retaining top employees. They also crave a respectful and supportive work environment that provides the following:

Autonomy. “High performers do not like to be micro-managed,” says Christina Eanes, a workforce management consultant in Alexandria, Virginia. “They want the freedom to do their job in a creative way, along with the requisite responsibility and authority. This benefits the business, too. Innovation happens when smart people find new and better ways to get their jobs done.”

Frequent feedback. Top performers want to know where they stand—and not just during annual evaluations. The HBR report highlights the importance of monthly performance reviews. “It’s important that people understand what the business wants, and that they feel valued when they meet the employer’s expectations,” says Donna Cutting, CEO of Red Carpet Learning Systems in Asheville, North Carolina. “The ability to contribute and to feel involved with the success of the organization can be its own motivation.”

Advancement pathways. Top performers expect to advance in their careers. “Create a culture where people want to work with you because of what they are going to learn. Provide a clear-cut career ladder so they see how they can move up,” says Cutting.

But what if your facility doesn't have enough open management positions to accommodate every deserving person? “You can still create a growth path for top-performing people that keeps them feeling challenged even if they are not advanced into management positions,” says Dye.

Think laterally. “High achievers have an insatiable need for self-development,” says Eanes. “They have an ingrained need to develop themselves, so the more opportunities you can provide them to learn, the more loyal they will be.” A high-performing individual at the front desk, for example, might welcome a move to an adjacent position in human resources with the chance to learn a new set of marketable skills. “Not every top performer expects that advancement means a higher-level position,” says Eanes. “Millennials, especially, often prefer to move laterally because it provides them with more learning opportunities and more challenges.”

Tailor Their Roles

Because not all top performers have the same motivations, you need to consult with each of them to better understand their specific needs. “I suggest designing what I call an Individual Development Plan (IDP) with each person,” says Eanes. “Determine the next logical level of knowledge and expertise and what you can do to help them achieve it.”

An IDP might include a planned pathway to advancement or the acquisition of new skills. One individual might take on responsibility for larger projects. A second might share their knowledge by training other people. A third might cross-train in areas outside of their core competency. Think of these as “expertise promotions.”

Such work environment modifications, combined with competitive pay, should go a long way toward keeping your best people. Monitor how well you are doing by asking your staff for feedback. And observe how employees perform: Do they appear to be more motivated in their work?

Creating a program to retain your top people takes time and effort. The payoff, though, can be considerable. “Businesses that fail to retain their best people will be stuck with a majority of their employees being slackers and will end up overtaxing the foundational employees whom they rely on for productivity,” says Avdoian. “That will lead to a decline in employee morale, which will in turn impact productivity and devastate profitability.”

Phillip M. Perry is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Image copyright Getty Images.