How to Retain A Superstar

Employment is a transactional relationship, and it's up to you to negotiate fair and compelling deals with your superstars.

Don’t wait for your superstars to start thinking about leaving before you start asking, “What can we do to keep you?” Start asking on their very first day of employment and keep asking. Does that mean you should do everything for everybody? No. Why would you want to?


In your regular ongoing one-on-one dialogue with every person, you should be talking about not only what you need from each person, but also about what each person needs from you. Your direct reports need to know that you understand what they want and need, that you care, and that you are going to work with them on an ongoing basis to help them earn more of it. The key is not to give them false hope or make false promises. When employees express needs and wants that are totally unrealistic, Let them know that immediately to manage their expectations. Help them see what is realistic.

Knowing what your employees need and want

Sometimes what they want is downright easy for you to deliver. But first, you have to know what they need and want. Small one-time accommodations, such as leaving early to be with a sick family member, are easy to grant and usually a matter of kindness. Failure to grant them usually costs much more than giving them. But of course, you can’t let employees take advantage. If an employee wants to leave early every afternoon to visit a sister in the hospital, then that’s not a one-time accommodation. That’s a special schedule. You can’t do everything for everybody. The question is only: How much can you do for this person at this time?

Start talking with all of your direct reports about retention on day one, and keep talking about it. Zero in on the superstars early and often. If you are talking with them about how to meet their needs and wants on an ongoing basis, they are much more likely to talk with you at those key points when they are trying to decide whether to leave or stay. If you are willing to work with them, you can be flexible and generous. That’s how you make them want to stay and work harder, at least for a bit longer. Those employees who turn out to be long-term employees will be the ones who decide repeatedly that they wanted to stay.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this strategy.

As part of our work with organizations on managing retention, I sometimes get a call from a senior executive in a panic over one superstar or another who might have one foot out the door. One of my favorite calls of all time was exactly the other end of the spectrum: “Great news: She did have one foot out the door after all, but now I’m quite certain she’s not going anywhere ever!” That call came from a senior executive in a huge multinational company in the mining industry (I’ll call him “Gold”).

I knew that Gold had been very worried about losing a very promising protégé with whom he had been working closely, mentoring and developing for nearly two years (I’ll call the protégé “Silver”). There was no question, Silver was a superstar and she was going places. She had a Ph.D. in geophysical engineering and an MBA. She carried US and EU citizenship, spoke multiple languages, and had life experiences that had seasoned her. Gold had invested a huge amount of time and significant resources in Silver’s growth and development. Gold had brought Silver into high-level meetings, exposed her to powerful decision-makers, and included her in the details of complex transactions. He was cultivating a deputy and, perhaps ten years down the road, a successor in his role. Gold had said many times: “I’m telling you—- Silver could be the CEO of this entire company.” By the way, she was only 33.

Needless to say, Silver was courted grandly by many other potential employers. She got calls from headhunters every day, not to mention senior executives and even CEOs of other companies in or around the mining industry. Silver was one of those people who could write her own ticket, and name her own terms. Gold could see his considerable development investment in Silver was at risk. Gold had already leveraged every last budget dollar to pay her a high salary, but any other employer could just match that money and eliminate that as a factor. Money alone was not going to solve the problem. The solution would have to come from a more interesting currency, something less easy to “match” in dollars in a bidding contest. The key would be to identify the non-financial factors that were really important to Silver and find a way to create a customized work situation that would be very hard to replicate with another employer.

My advice to Gold: “Find out what Silver’s ideal work conditions would be—- other than money. Tell her to design her dream job.” Nobody quits a dream job.

Here’s what Silver wanted: She wanted to be based in the Bay Area in California (although Gold and his team were based in Salt Lake City, Utah). She wanted to work directly with Gold and only on his deals. She wanted to work thirty-eight weeks a year, according to a strict calendar of weeks on and fourteen weeks off. (She agreed she could be available for a limited number of meetings during weeks off.) She wanted her travel time limited to 50 percent of her schedule. She wanted to be paid at 100 percent full-time with full access to all benefits, bonuses, promotions, and raises. She wanted a full-time staff assistant based in the Bay Area with her and dedicated 100 percent to supporting her. There was more, but that was the gist of it.

Gold gave her everything she wanted. And he was right. She was not going anywhere. Nobody quits a dream job.

Why shouldn’t employees who are worth more negotiate for the best deal they possibly can?

Employment is a transactional relationship. The question is: Will you have the imagination to negotiate fair and compelling deals with your superstars? And will you be able to muster the discretion and resources to make those deals? The best people at every level should be in a position to negotiate the best deals. When a valuable person goes into the trouble of customizing their work situation, negotiating special arrangements with the organization, their manager, and their coworkers, their stake in the position grows tremendously, along with their investment in the organization, their commitment, and their willingness to keep going the extra mile.