Think back. Reflect on your career and write down your five biggest leadership disappointments.
If your experience is typical, your list will include losing top-quality talent. The memory of “suddenly” losing one of your best and brightest never seems to fade. The story is always the same: They weren’t looking, but a great opportunity just fell into their lap.
(Right. Sure it did.)
Hearing the news makes your heart sink and shifts your reality. It’s not just business; it’s personal. They aren’t just leaving the organization; they’re leaving you. Despite all the time spent together making plans, overcoming adversity, and celebrating accomplishments, they have decided that your best efforts as a leader weren’t good enough. To cope, you rationalize: People are responsible for their own career. You say to yourself: They come and they go. There’s nothing I could have done. No one is indispensable. No big deal.
But it is a big deal, of course. Losing high performers is painful, both personally and professionally. Consider the story of Sean, a high-potential employee who left a company after five years because he felt disconnected and disrespected. His direct supervisor did little, if anything, to sponsor him. All the groundbreaking work led by Sean, while apparent to his team, peers, and customers, was invisible to the powers that be. When he pitched requests for additional resources, he was turned down. And when he expressed interest in an opportunity for promotion, he was politely but firmly dismissed. When Sean had finally had enough and landed a better position with a rival, senior managers were at first surprised and then dismayed, as they were barraged with complaints about his departure from his former colleagues. As is often the case with external hires (of which 46 percent fail, according to Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ), lacking organizational context and trusted relationships, Sean’s replacement was struggling, unable to pick up where Sean left off and finding it difficult to connect with colleagues who were holding on to the past.
High potentials have plenty of options to think and act in their own best interests, along with the confidence to do so. According to a study by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), as many as 25 percent of high-potential employees plan on leaving their jobs within a year. To understand why, consider the reasons others gave in the CEB study for not leaving:
- They feel connected: “I like the people here. They’re my friends. This feels like a team—like a fam-ily. I might make more money if I left, but I don’t want to leave the people here.”
- They feel challenged: “I’m finding meaning and happiness now. The work is exciting, and I love what I’m doing.”
- They feel developed: “I can follow my dreams. This organization is giving me the chance to grow and do what I really want to do in life.”
When these conditions do not exist, high performers will head for the exits.
Leaders who excel at retaining top talent truly care about the people delivering the performance. They are inspired by the vision of their employees coming home after work, with a smile on their face, saying, “Guess what I did today.” These leaders invest time to help their most valuable contributors understand their capabilities and career goals, improve their performance, and get the necessary sponsorship and support. They consider talent development one of the most important—and satisfying—parts of their job, and they invest their time accordingly (on average, 20 percent of it, according to research from Aon Hewitt).