3 Ways to Keep Your Key Talent—Without Spending a Dime

by John Whitaker on Mar 5, 2015 8:00:00 AM

iStock_000028416736_SmallYou know what’s difficult? Leaving a good job. When you’re fortunate enough to work for an employer that treats you fairly, offers competitive compensation, and provides job security, that’s usually the trifecta. 

That’s not to imply that these are negative qualities in a company, but would it surprise you to know that each can create problems in the retention of your most talented people?
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This is a wake-up call that you may be doing a great deal of things correctly, but still be setting up an exit path for your top performers. I’ve seen it happen countless times in my experience with Fortune 500 companies that have miniscule turnover rates—but the people they do lose … ouch.

Take my current work in the biotech industry as a prime example. There’s enormous profitability in these companies, and it shows in their employee offerings: 
  • Competitive salaries
  • Annual bonuses
  • Superior compensation plans
  • On-site perks
It boggles the mind. Who would leave a sweet setup like that?

Let's use the 80/20 rule here (80% of something is getting down by 20% of the resources). For 80% of the employees, that’s a true sentiment. But for the 20% who are carrying the company on their respective backs, the comfortability and coziness can actually work against you.

  • Your retention is too high: Companies trumpet their successful track record of 95% retention as if it’s an attraction statement. It’s not. It’s a retention statement. Know what that number says to an ambitious employee? It says that unless a hearse pulls up out front, there is limited opportunity to advance. 
  • Precedent makes decisions: Established companies like to follow precedent in almost all facets of employee decisions. “If we offer this to Joe, then we have to offer it to everyone.” This is a crippling effect of fairness; a star performer is limited to the same options as any other employee.
  • Boredom sets in: By and large, your top talent wants to be challenged. If your organization is in a mature state where innovation is less critical than consistency and reliability, you may not be offering opportunities for creative thinking. “Business as usual” can be boring.

So what are some things that you can do as an organization to keep exceptional talent?

  1. Hold “stay conversations”: Not to be confused with a performance review, this is a conversation specifically orchestrated to communicate vision to the employee. Nothing makes a bigger impact on an up-and-comer like face time with the big boss—someone who can speak to not only what’s next, but also the plan for what lies ahead of that.

  2. Embrace change: Not everyone hates change. The 80% may hate it, but it’s a different experience for someone with bigger plans. Change equals opportunity for those seeking a crack in the established way of doing business. For people who want to swing big, change may be the catalyst they need for the chance to wildly succeed. That may require you, as a leader, to manufacture change occasionally, if for no other reason than to keep things interesting.

  3. Offer choices: Top talent should have options that are unavailable to the rank and file. When I was deliberating the decision to leave my job, I approached the senior manager regarding a simple option that would have an incredible impact on my quality of life: one day per week working from home. Once a quarter was the counter-option. What I heard was “we don’t trust you.”

Notice that nowhere in this discussion did I mention compensation. If money were the only way to woo the talented employees of competitors, you wouldn’t see the talent extraction success of start-up companies. You recruit a special type of attitude when speaking with these people; you don’t try to money-whip them. When I’m in discussions with people in established giants, compensation will not be on the front end of the conversation. If money is a candidate’s prime interest, I know he or she is not a match for what I’m offering.

There is a place for both in an organization. One keeps your masses in place; one keeps your swimmers away from the railing. Choose wisely.



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This post was written by John Whitaker

John Whitaker is a thought leader in Human Resources, specializing in the employee experience. After 15 years in the corporate Human Resources suite, John has spent the last five years consulting in the biotechnology space, including Alcon, Bayer, Bausch & Lomb, Genentech, and Avalanche Biotech. He lives in Southlake, Texas with his wife and two sons.

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