How to Hang Onto Your Best & Brightest

Creating jobs is one thing. Keeping your top performers in them? Entirely different.
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Entrepreneurs are fulfilling a crucial role by creating jobs. That’s great for our economy, and for our society as a whole, but for entrepreneurs themselves the real challenge is often retention. The key task, from an entrepreneur’s point of view, goes beyond creating jobs. It's creating jobs that will not only attract good people but also allow the company to retain, over time, the best and brightest.

As an entrepreneur, you may bring people into your business before you really know what you need them to do. You may not be able to pay them as much as you like or as much as they’re worth, and they often wear many hats. Often, they come in on the ground floor and accumulate critical knowledge. And when you need them the most, it’s only too likely that the market will drag them away.

That means you need to get directly involved in retention. Employees won’t stay because of the size of the paycheck. They’ll stay because they feel they are recognized, engaged, challenged, and part of a team.

Start by deciding exactly who you need to retain. Be honest.  Some people are more valuable to your company than others, so focus on the things that are important to them. To keep the best in your corner over the long haul:

  • Hire from within Top talent typically assumes that they have to move out to move up.  Staffing jobs internally gives your employees a reason to stick around.
  • Keep top talent engaged and client-connected If rising stars aren’t given stimulating work, recognition, and a chance to prosper, they can easily become disengaged. Providing them with the opportunity to build direct relationships with clients ensures that they gain autonomy and recognition on the job. It also gives them enhanced insight into what really makes your business tick.
  • Engage the employee’s family Offering after-school or vacation activities for your employee’s kids not only frees up your employees, but builds a link between your company and the employee’s family. Intel and SAS are great examples of how companies embed the family into the firm, making the employment relationship more personal and therefore, harder to break.
  • Stretch their comfort zones Rotate top talent into positions that may be outside of their natural comfort zones. Make an effort to assign high-potentials to risky and challenging assignments. Microsoft proactively moves employees into projects demanding the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, rather than into projects that would allow them to rely on lessons already learned. Google posts projects and facilitates self-selection into them in order to allow employees to direct their own development.
  • Develop coaching programs Coaching isn’t only for big companies. Your coaching program doesn’t have to be a big deal, with trainings and binders. Try something small and informal, such as a weekly check-in with a cup of coffee to make sure that employees are on track and moving toward their goals. This is especially important during the first six months of employment, when risk of turnover is highest. The feedback and coaching elements of Dow-Corning’s on-boarding program played a key role in that program’s ability to reduce initial turnover rates by 17% and shorten the learning cycle in most jobs by 20%.
  • Link critical competencies to business strategy Why do people do the things they do?  How do they contribute to the bottom line?  Make sure that everyone understands the importance of what they do, and why they do it. This sounds basic, but it’s easy to overlook in the crush of the day-to-day. Just as important: If people are missing important skills that are key to the business, make sure that they are given the opportunity to learn them.
  • Provide opportunity to influence company strategy  Acknowledge that people have learned things on the job and are able to contribute in a larger sense.  Invite them to participate in meetings and think actively about the future direction of the enterprise.
  • Facilitate career planning Career planning is closely related to coaching, but takes it up a notch.  If your team is small, but you’re moving ahead, you need to create opportunities for people to have a sense that they are learning and engaged, and that their career is on the upswing.  Again, in smaller organizations, people often think that there is no “moving up.”  You need to work to overcome this notion. Be sincere in communicating what you are able to do, and what you can’t do, to help employees move toward their career goals.  If career opportunities really are capped, work on improving your employees’ opportunity for work-life balance. You might offer sabbaticals or create flexible employment practices (e.g., working from home, part-time positions, job-sharing).
  • Create alternative employment structures and seek out those looking for part-time work.  Not all turnover is driven by employees’ career ambitions. Sometimes employees leave simply to have more time with their families.  By allowing for job sharing, part-time work and telecommuting, small companies can take advantage of the expanding number of talented workers that are looking for precisely such opportunities.
IMAGE: Martin Barraud/Getty
Last updated: Dec 5, 2012

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the co-founder of Bacharach Leadership Group (BLG), specializing in leadership development programs with an emphasis on micro-skills: change, execution, negotiation and coaching. He is the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School. His books include Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side.

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



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