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Retaining Top Talent: Yes, It Really Is All about Them

If you want to retain your high-potential employees, you have to get involved in helping them plan their careers.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Think back. Reflect on your career and write down your top five 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 (yeah, right).

Hearing the news makes your heart sink and shifts your reality. It’s not just business; it’ personal. They aren’t just leaving the organization; they’re leaving you. In spite of all the time spent together making plans, overcoming adversities, 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 careers.” You think to yourself: “They come and they go. Nothing I could have done. No one is indispensable. No big deal.

But it is a big deal. Losing high performers is painful, both personally and professionally. An estimated 25 percent of these high-potential employees plan on leaving their jobs within a year.

However, leaders can reduce the risk of losing the right people for the wrong reasons by working collaboratively with them to identify challenging assignments that tap into their passions and career goals.

Most leaders sidestep career discussions, buying into the philosophy that it’s not their responsibility. While this is fundamentally true, most people don’t have well-articulated career goals or feel comfortable talking with their supervisors about the type of opportunities that would help them develop. As a result, they find it easier to converse with a recruiter rather than their boss as they consider the future of their careers.

Customizing opportunities to each employee requires that leaders understand their people’s goals, motivations, and values. It’s a simple process, but very few leaders do it—or even know how to do it. Don’t believe me? Take a look at these questions and answer them for one of your direct reports:

  • What are your proudest accomplishments and biggest disappointments? Why?
  • What activities energize you and drain you?
  • How would you force rank the following rewards: financial gain, power and influence, lifestyle, autonomy, affiliation, intellectual challenge, competence, recognition, other?
  • If you died tomorrow, what would you want your legacy to be?
  • What is your five-year career goal? If you don’t have one, what’s your “best guess”?

Don’t feel bad if you are left with a lot of white space. You aren’t alone: Over the past 15 years, I have yet to meet a leader who could answer these questions. Typically, leaders get to know their people within the context of their current assignments, treating their past and imagined future as unimportant to the task at hand.

But they are important, and you should care. Kick-start the process of getting to know your people by meeting with them one-on-one for 90 minutes. When scheduling the meeting, let them know that you want to get to know them better and discuss their passions and career goals, and send them the five questions above, requesting that they provide written responses along with their most current resume prior to the meeting.

In preparation for the meeting, review their answers and ready yourself to facilitate a discussion that gets to the core of who they are and what they love. For example, why did they enjoy the acquisition project, or find the new product rollout frustrating, or highlight “feeding the poor” as something they want to be remembered for? Note any inconsistencies among their motivators, values, and career goal (for example, that they want to spend more time with their family but are interested in working in a global position). Last but not least, determine if their five-year career goal is specific and aspirational enough to be used as a touchstone in career and performance development conversations that follow.

Make the meeting all about them. Ask questions, reflect back what you hear, and be encouraging. Don’t provide feedback or advice—just listen and learn. If you follow these simple steps, your people will leave the meeting feeling honored, respected, and energized, and you will have the insights necessary to help them define their development objectives and sculpt their future assignments in a way that synchs up with how they want to live and what they want to achieve.
After the meeting, follow up by discussing current capabilities and how they align with longer-term goals and the type of assignments that would help build capabilities and accelerate career development.

Employees who have participated in these type of discussions tell me time and time again that this is the first time their supervisor—or any supervisor—invested time to get to know them and actively sponsor their career development.  

It’s hard to overstate the importance of staying in close contact with your high potentials. You may have high expectations of them, but they also have high expectations of you. Make it hard for them to leave you by making sure you don’t leave them.

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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