The Best Way to Retain Truly Talented People

There is no doubt that personnel retention is and will continue to be a major challenge for most organizations. There are numerous studies that suggest that, on a global scale, a lot of people are eager to make a change in their employment situation by leaving their current employers. This does not necessarily mean that the talented people in your organization will want to leave – but they just might. So, if you value the contribution of your exceptional managers and staff, you would be wise to do everything possible to ensure that you retain them.

Hopefully we can agree on this point – truly talented people are rare. And because they are rare, they are in demand. So, organizational and departmental leaders who understand the benefits of employing as many talented people as possible (positive growth, enhanced performance, increased revenues, cost reduction, profitability, success), will be interested in not only keeping their talented people but also in attracting your talented people to their organization. Depending on the steps that they take to accomplish this, they could very well place even greater pressure on your already stressed talent retention objectives.

If you want to continue to surround yourself with those talented people who define your organization, or department, and who will help you to move forward, you will need to; properly define talent, understand the difference between active and passive employees, know that job boards and employment branding are not your biggest threat, worry about talented Head Hunters, and focus on building an organization that people do not want to leave.

First Make the Distinction Between True Talent and Everyone Else

You shouldn’t expect to be able to retain talent if you cannot define what it is, or properly evaluate its presence, in your managers and staff. For me, contrary to the seemingly common opinion that the term ‘talent’ can be applied to almost everyone, truly talented people are defined by their ability to perform, or minimally by their potential to perform. Because they possess both the technical and non-technical performance traits that are required to be successful, we often see that their performance typically exceeds the requirements of their current position, and most often they have a track record of superior performance throughout their career.

Beyond a general definition of ‘talent’, it is important to be able to effectively define high performance expectations for each of your specific organizational positions and then to identify those managers and staff who are either currently meeting them, or who have the potential to meet them in the future. These are the people who you will definitely want to keep and to assist in their further performance capability development.

By not assuming that 100% retention would be a desired condition (it’s not), you can be comfortable in releasing your untalented, consistently poor performers as part of your organizational development process. Just like managing a professional sports franchise, there is value in encouraging a continual improvement mentality that attempts to upgrade the abilities that exist in each of your positions, and that also increases your overall ‘talent bench’ for succession support over time. To do this you will need to first place talented people in high impact positions, to retain them, and then to continuously upgrade your supportive talent around them. Sometimes this means developing people, sometimes it means hiring better people, and sometimes it means downsizing the weak.

Understand the Difference Between Active and Passive Employment Seekers

Some of your people, for whatever reason, may be unhappy or dissatisfied with your organization. And as a result, they will more actively look for alternative employment. This should be welcomed by you if they are below-average performers, and it could be troublesome if they are at least average performers. But should your rare, talented high-impact people, or your people with high performance potential, be actively looking to leave you, big warning flags should be raised. If they are truly talented they will be readily accepted elsewhere, so the subsequent exodus that you will experience will be devastating to both your organization and to your personal career success. In the event that you have already defined talent, and the people in our organization who possess it, you will be more able to react should there be indications that these people may be becoming active employment seekers. Obviously, the nature and prioritization of your reaction will depend on the talent level of the people who are considering leaving.

Most often your passive talented performers are busy, somewhat satisfied and not particularly looking for a change.The problem is, while they may not be actively looking to make a change, some of these people will leave anyway, with little warning, not because they are looking, but because they are found. Since rare talented people are highly desirable, both your direct and indirect competitors are going to be very interested in attracting them away from you and into their own organizations. And because talented people are invariably career-oriented, they will always be cautiously open to select, real career opportunities that are properly presented to them. Depending on what talent attraction techniques that they employ, your most attractive competitors will be successful in getting their interest.

Don’t Worry Too Much About Job Boards Stealing Your Talented People

Let’s face it. Busy, talented, employed people do not have the time to spend looking at job postings that are typically directed at the “less rare” average performer in order to fill low-impact position vacancies. Often seen as ‘cattle call’ recruitment methodology that is more applicable to the unemployed or the active employed ‘job seeker’, most talented career-oriented people are reluctant to respond to this form of hiring methodology. And they will have little patience for an extensive on-line application process that seems to focus more on ease of hire than quality of hire. Since they are passive, talented people will better respond to being approached than methodology that requires them to do the approaching. They are different, and they expect to be treated differently.

In the rare instances that they do respond to job advertisements, any ‘posters’ who are more administrative than evaluative will actually repel talent should they not understand their nature or their needs. Further, even when approached, high-performers will be reluctant to deal with organizational representatives who are unable to effectively communicate in their ‘language’, and they will often assume that the messenger is representing an unattractive, low-performance organization. Too often you hear complaints regarding organizational representatives “not understanding the position details, not effectively describing the requirements, not knowing the stages and timelines of the hiring process, not following up or communicating properly throughout the process, etc etc”.Talent prefers to work with talent throughout a professional hiring process.So you do not really need to worry about either job postings or weak recruiters / organizational ‘talent acquisition specialists’.

Don’t Worry Too Much About “Employment Branding” Stealing Them Either

Some people are suggesting that ‘employment branding” is going to be the new disruptive process that will steal “top talent” from your organization. I am not convinced of this. Employment branding essentially involves an organization distributing positive content (stories, videos, press releases) about themselves, assuming that passive top talent will read it, believe it, and then as a result want to leave your organization to join their branded organization. The problem with this argument is that most organizations are already distributing positive information now, via their websites and social media information sharing programs, and that since everyone can and will “brand”, all that will result is the creation of a lot of confusing “noise”.

Since true talent tends to be passive, they will devote limited time to accessing, reading or viewing this branding information. And even if they do, with all of the ‘competitive noise’ that results in all organizations claiming to be the ‘best’, who will they actually believe? It is more likely that employment branding will possibly impact the job “post and hope that they come to us” market, because in reality, branding is just another post and hope activity. The good news for you is that it, like job postings, any attraction that occurs will be more likely to work on your actively looking employees rather than the passive top talent that you want to retain. Honest employment branding can play a supportive role in ‘found’ candidate information gathering and decision-making, but it will not be the catalyst that will actively steal your talent from you.

Worry About Talented Head Hunters

You should worry about ‘Head Hunters’, like me, who actively find talented people.

In my work I recruit talented people and I also help them with their career development – so I have seen both sides of the ‘equation’. When we are performing the recruitment function for our hiring clients, they rely on us to be able to find hard-to-find real talent that they are not capable of finding themselves. Because our clients have high expectations, we cannot hope for talented people to find us, or for them to be already resident in our resume databases. And despite the fact that we have been ‘branding’ for years, we would never expect the right person to be able to find us just at the right time – it just does not work that way. Posting positions will not meet either of our client’s or our needs because the result is invariably a number of active respondents who are not a strong enough match with our clients’ specific requirements. If posting worked in bringing in real talent – our clients would do it themselves. The role of the Head Hunter is to find.

Truly talented Head Hunters can better recognize true talent because they understand the importance of performance. For us, it is not enough to only ‘fill the vacant chair’, we want to fill it with a person who will perform and who will sustain their performance over time. In order to be successful, we go well beyond ‘fishing expeditions’ based on titles in profiles and resumes. It is our role to understand our clients’ desired performance outcomes, to define their specific performance requirements, to be able to identify and evaluate each candidate’s performance capabilities accordingly, and to provide insightful hiring advice. Since the most effective Head Hunters are evaluative ‘matchmakers’, rather than self-serving salespeople, we also ensure that we understand how our clients’ open position will fit into the employment candidate’s specific career objectives. We act as an honest representative for the benefit of both parties.

This bi-lateral match-making approach helps us to understand what talented candidates’ want in their careers, what will motivate them to change and what will be attractive to them at their ‘next career level’. In doing so, we are better able to target the ‘best fit’ candidate in both technical and non-technical terms, to gain their trust and to communicate them honestly and effectively. And since we know that talented candidates will only join ‘best fit’ managers who meet their specific needs, we are selective in choosing the hiring clients to work for, and we take the time to understand their managerial approach in order to ensure compatibility with our candidate’s management response expectations.

Capable Head Hunters who work for attractive clients, who understand performance and how to identify the talented people who will provide it, who understand peoples’ career ambitions and requirements, and who have the credibility to communicate with them in their ‘language’ are THE biggest threat to your talent retention objectives. There is only one way to prevent these Head Hunters from taking your talent.

You Need to Build An Organization That Your Talented People Do Not Want to Leave

The best way to increase talent retention is to actually be attractive. If you provide most of the elements that talented people want in their career they will be reluctant to leave your organization because it will be hard for Head Hunters to present a better career opportunity somewhere else. Talented people will simply not leave your organization to go to a less attractive employer. To be successful, you will need to go well beyond simply distributing marketing statements in the hope of creating a positive “employment brand” – you will have to actually put in the effort to build an organization that will be attractive to both your current talented managers and staff and to the external talent that will be encouraged to join. If you have been recently experiencing talent loss you should have done this yesterday and, if you are worried about future talent loss, you should be doing this today. It’s not “the other guy’s problem!"

Since people often come and go on the basis of management, the organization that has the most attractive managers will be the most attractive to talented people. So you will automatically improve your talent retention by simply hiring and developing those better managers and leaders who will provide the elements that talented people want in their careers; an internal career track, growth and development opportunities, challenging work, internal mobility options, strong team capability and collaboration, fair remuneration, work life balance etc. It all starts with a sound senior management vision, then a true commitment to building a talent-attractive organization, and then the provision of the necessary support in order to help your managers to be successful. The organizational benefit will be found in the positive economic impact that results when you turn a possible talent-loss downward spiral into a growth-oriented upward spiral. The personal benefit will be in surrounding yourself with talented people who will contribute to your career success.

If you build it, “they will stay”.

(For a supportive example of building an attractive organization, please also see my article “Why You Need to Evaluate Your Hiring Effectiveness and to Be More Like Bob”).