Keeping Your Gen Xer Top Talent … Not Just the High Potentials

Excerpt from Chapter Six of “Stuck In The Middle: A Generation X View of Talent Management” by Curtis L. Odom, Ed.D.

By Curtis L. Odom, Ed.D.

There is a question organizations need to ask (and answer) so they don’t become stuck in the middle. And that question is “How do we keep our top talent engaged and retained?”

There are ways to get Gen Xers to stay with the organization. You can build them up to be your top talent. And if you have top talent inside your organization, you can bind them to the organization by giving them restricted stock units, giving them a pay raise, or giving them an in-line promotion. Basically you throw a bunch of love, leeway, lies, and loot at them to buy their allegiance. You are hoping to buy their time in the seat. You are hoping to buy their career aspirations. You are hoping to buy yourself or your organization time.

Companies are starting to also wake up to the fact that, once upon a time, they could say to top talent, “We’ll give you a stay bonus of $25,000. If you leave within a year, you have to pay that money back.” But now, that no longer works. Talented individuals with unique, skills in demand can ask for a $50,000 signing bonus somewhere else, take $25,000 to pay back employer No. 1, and have $25,000 in their pocket courtesy of their new employer. At the end of the day, they get their $25,000 and get themselves unstuck from the middle. When you say that to organizations, they think, “Oh, but we’ve got a stay bonus for them.” But they’re not going to stay. Because if they’re worth you paying that bonus, they’re worth twice that to someone else. Another organization that truly recognizes top talent will pay that bonus gladly to get that knowledge, skill, or ability it doesn’t have currently in the company.

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) talks about talent development as a 70- 20-10 rule. In this rule, 70 percent of learning and building bench strength for the future is based on a variety of challenging assignments and projects—basically on-the-job experience. Twenty percent is from connecting with others—getting candid feedback, learning by observing, coaching, mentoring, active role modeling. And 10 percent is from coursework and training.

The majority of corporate organizations use training, or learning and development, as a way to prepare their leaders for the future—to grow the talent they need. I am by experience a learning and development professional. But after I had a cup of the “wake-up-to-reality-strength” coffee, I realized that training is a reported $90 billion (with a “b”) business, yet it is only a 10 percent solution to what really should be done to drive employee professional development. As such, I now look to training courses as the last or least impactful way to grow knowledge, and skills. I have been forever converted to now be a follower of the 70-20-10 model … and heavily focused on the 70 percent and 20 percent as evidenced by the crux of this book.

When I think about talent management, for those folks who are stuck in the middle, they’re stuck not because they don’t have the training to do what needs to be done. It’s because they don’t have the other two aspects of development being provided for them, or they are not seeking for themselves the other 90 percent. They don’t have someone who gives them challenging assignments and allows them to observe and learn from others, or who acts as an active role model for them. They don’t have someone who coaches and mentors them while providing candidate feedback. On top of that, the 70 percent highly visible, challenging assignments that stretch you and help you grow professionally, who are those reserved for in the organization?

The high potentials of course! So if you’re not deemed “high potential,” what do you do? Do you sit around and hope to be rated “high potential” one day? Or do you go and look for an organization that will allow you to be the high potential you believe you are now but that your current company says you may be in five years. I suggest you go find that company and be its high potential walking in the door today. Be a free agent. Get unstuck by having the role you want now rather than wonder why there is no corporate loyalty at your current employer. Shift your mindset from your job being the most valuable asset in the relationship to instead seeing your time and talents as the most valuable asset.

One of the things mentioned in a recent HR industry magazine article is that there are many ways to develop and hold onto high potentials. I won’t go off on too far of a tangent about it, but I think some of the articles I read are funny in a commonsense sort of way. Some of the things they mentioned were suggestions such as: “Tell them that they’re special” and “Delegate real responsibility.” That goes right to that 70 percent. Some leaders don’t want to delegate big, hairy, audacious assignments to their employees, because they fear they will fail—and their employees’ failure will come back to embarrass them.

In reality, that’s the thing we as Gen X leaders want. We want the challenge. We want to go and try to do something significant to see if we can do it. To be kept in the dark and fed “fertilizer” like mushrooms is not what Gen Xers want. Organizations are killing themselves trying to figure out how to keep top talent. But in reality, they’re failing because they don’t understand top talent. They don’t understand Gen Xers because they keep shooting in the dark for what they think we want, while at the same time having to run the business “the same old way.” 

I just think there’s a missed opportunity there for our generation to have somebody to speak for them. I have grown weary of hearing from Baby Boomer authors about what is on the mind of Generation X in the workplace. So I decided to add my voice to the conversation as both a Gen Xer and an author. There’s a missed opportunity here for this audience to be able to pick up a book and try to understand what Baby Boomers and Millennials think of us. Does anyone really understand us? Is anyone speaking up for me? Allow me, through the pages of this book, to speak up for Generation X and speak to what you need to know about us as Gen Xers. No matter what you may have been told, what Gen Xers want is in the workplace is really not that complicated.

In the pages for my book are examples of what we Generation X employees really want, and why organizations need to look at how we get our work done, and consider a redefinition of the workplace to be more inclusive of Gen Xer work-style preferences. Or they can continue to watch the exit of their top talent to competitors who have figured out how to neither get, nor stay stuck in, the middle.

Excerpt from Chapter Six of “Stuck In The Middle: A Generation X View of Talent Management” by Curtis L. Odom, Ed.D. For more information, visit

Dr. Curtis L. Odom is principal and managing partner of Prescient Training Strategists, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on integrated talent management. Author of “Stuck in the Middle: A Generation X View of Talent Management,” Dr. Odom has more than 15 years of experience in talent development, performance consulting, training, and instructional design as a practitioner, researcher, author, and speaker. Dr. Odom earned his doctorate of education from Pepperdine University and has been industry certified as both a Human Capital Strategist and Strategic Workforce Planner from the Human Capital Institute.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.