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How to Keep a Superstar Employee Happy

Can't offer extra money or a better title? You may not need either to get your top employee to stick around.

Dear Jeff,

One of my employees is outstanding, but I’m worried because I can tell she is starting to look for greener pastures. Unfortunately I don’t have much to offer her. What can I do?—Marcellus Fignon

Most businesses have “that” employee: smart, energetic, self-motivated, consistently outperforms peers, takes on formal and informal leadership roles, steps up when there's a challenge... forget an iPad 3, Apple needs to develop a cloning device.

But that employee is also hard to keep, especially if your business is small and your resources are limited.  She wants to advance, professionally and financially. That's a problem when you can’t promote her or pay her more.

You know other employers would snap her up in a heartbeat. What can you do?

Start by addressing the issue before she brings it up. Be honest. Describe how important she is to your business.  Explain why a raise is not possible. Discuss the current lack of openings. Most importantly, admit you know she has opportunities. Don't let that be an elephant in the room.

And never make promises or dangle the hope of opportunities that may not come through. You'll be tempted, but resist the temptation. Don't say, “In six months I feel there might be opportunities for promotion,” unless you absolutely know that is true. Don't say, “Next year I’ll definitely be able to give you a significant raise,” unless you absolutely know you will be able to.

When false hopes are unfulfilled, great employees are gone.

But don’t despair. More often than you might think, employees don't leave companies, they leave bosses. Outstanding employees are loyal employees. So be a great boss: Honest, loyal, and constantly seeking to improve the skills of your employees.

That’s the best way to keep great employees, even those who occasionally yearn for other opportunities.

Then keep creating informal opportunities that allow her to expand her skills and continue to shine. Ask about her long-range goals and create opportunities that will help her reach them. If she eventually wants to own her own business, that’s perfect—get her involved in everything.

If she’s smart—and clearly she is—she’ll recognize how valuable those experiences are.

Will that satisfy her, at least for a while? Hopefully so: I was once in a similar situation and it satisfied me. I was glad I stayed.

Just don't go overboard. All of your employees deserve development opportunities. Spread the wealth.

Great employees understand that other people deserve opportunities too.

Have a question? Email and it may appear in a future column. Please indicate if you would like your name and/or company name to appear.

IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: Apr 3, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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