By Mattson Newell, a Director for Partners In Leadership, a leading management consulting firm, who works with leaders to create greater accountability across the workforce and facilitates enterprise-wide culture change. 

In 2016 we have seen the passing of two music legends, David Bowie and Prince, and the associated mourning, fallout, and tributes--all deservedly so. We see their great impact on the industry, their fans, and people around the world.

In a business microcosm, leaders also mourn a loss when they lose a rock star employee. Now we aren't losing our employees to death, rather competitors, retirement, or burnout.

These employees are the ones who are our champions; they deliver results, and they lead our teams. They are the ones who we have pegged as successors.

And then they leave--leaving in their wake feelings of loss and us asking the question: "How do we replace them?"

Can't Keep Them All, But Try!

Not all rock stars are replaceable, but when you look to replace them, the easy answer is to not let them leave in the first place!

We all know that answer doesn't always suffice, which is further evidenced by a Harvard Business Review article that studied a survey of high-potential employees at organizations and found:

  • One in four intends to leave their employer within the year.
  • One in three admits to not putting all their effort into their job.
  • One in five believes their personal aspirations are not aligned with their organization.

This data shows that you'll inevitably lose rock stars--unfortunately, you can't keep them all. However, you can take steps to both prevent and mitigate the losses.

Keep Them with Culture

The best way for keeping rock stars is having a culture that encourages their development and fulfills their ambitions. How do you ensure that you have, or can create, a culture that can keep your rock stars?

Before we go much further, it's important to get the definition of culture right: Culture is simply the way people think and act. As a leader, you're accountable to know what your people are thinking and pointing them in the right direction.

To find this out, you need to constantly seek feedback from your people.

You'll find out you what you're doing right, what you need to do better, and shine a light on what they most want--they're telling you how to keep them! Use this feedback to create the right experiences that forge a culture where they can thrive.

Leaders are also accountable in making sure that their employees feel that their actions are meaningful and having an impact.

To reinforce this, it's important that you encourage the right behaviors and connect them with the company's results at every opportunity. Use methods like recognition, storytelling, and giving appreciative feedback.

Your culture is your primary means to keeping your rock stars--make sure you manage your culture, or it will manage your rock stars out the door.

Give Them a Career Path

Another way to keep your rock stars is implementing succession planning--show them that the future for them is bright.

These are your next waves of leaders, and having systems and processes in place to identify, develop, and build bench strength is vital in keeping them and staying competitive.

Jim Skinner, former CEO of McDonald's, was known to tell managers: "Give me the names of two people who could succeed you." This was one way he worked to manage succession planning.

The challenge many organizations have is that they define succession planning in the wrong way. The word "succession" has two different definitions:

  1. The action or process of inheriting a title, office, property, etc.
  2. A number of people or things sharing a specified characteristic and following one after the other.

You can see the difference.

One is about assuming position, carrying with it entitlement and seniority.

The other is about the sharing and passing along of specific characteristics you need your leaders having. This definition gets traction and carries success.

As a leader, it's up to you to identify these characteristics. Specifically, you will want to make sure your future leaders are aligned with the following:

  • Your mission: your overarching objective
  • Your culture: how your people think and act
  • Your results: what you are trying to deliver

Your Rock Stars are Your Future

We will all lose rock star employees at some time or another, but if handled the right way, it will only be a temporary setback, but hopefully you'll avoid losing many of them before that happens.

If you got your culture right and if you define succession planning in the right way, you are setting your organization up for long-term success.

Published on: May 31, 2016
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