Meeting the Challenge of Retaining Top Talent

While many top performers may also exhibit traits of high potentials for purposes of succession planning, not all top performers do. Too many managers mistake high performance as automatic high potential for leadership.

Businesses must meet the challenge of retaining top talent. Retaining top performers provides many benefits to organizations. Turnover of top performers that is avoidable (for example, because of poor management) and dysfunctional (losing those employees who are top performers) can have an adverse affect on the business. Because a significant percentage of organizational or team output often is attributable to a top performer, a business should focus on retaining this type of employee.

HR must take a strategic approach to increasing the retention rates of top talent and lowering dysfunctional and avoidable turnover. 

Accurately Identify Top Talent

Top performers are not necessarily high potentials with respect to leadership development or succession planning purposes. 

While many top performers may also exhibit traits of high potentials for purposes of succession planning, not all top performers do. Distressingly, too many managers mistake high performance as automatic high potential for leadership. 

Promoting a top performer to a supervisory or management position that is a bad fit will lead to disengagement and possible separation. This presents a terrible result for the organization: Not only is a top performer in a specific position lost and placed in a role that is a bad fit, but another employee who actually exhibits the high potential traits may become disengaged. 

By way of example, lost opportunities may be avoided if sales managers refrain from promoting a top salesperson to a management position based on assumptions regarding certain traits (i.e., extroversion, tenacity) being the most desirable in a supervisory role.

HR should consider efficiencies between succession planning and retention initiatives, such as by merging data sets related to ratings of vulnerability (e.g., High—appears to be actively looking outside; Some—not actively looking but could be recruited away) for top performers. 

Career and Leadership Development

Focusing on career and leadership development shows that an employer respects and values an employee’s contributions and growth. Providing training and opportunities for the employee to expand his or her role also will encourage initiative. However, an employer needs to be clear and honest when discussing development opportunities. Outlining advancement opportunities and sharing information on how to attain these aids employees in understanding possible career paths. 

If no advancement opportunities are currently available or possible, then an employer should engage in a forthright discussion on development options with an employee. If the nature of the employee’s position does not lend itself to advancement in a traditional ladder sense, focus should be placed on stretch assignments or offering on-the-job learning opportunities to expand an employee’s knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Growth opportunities within the team, learning initiatives, and options for secondments (whether formal or informal) to other teams, offices, or projects (whether local, national, or global), could further cement a top performer’s career trajectory within an organization. 

However, if an employer is forever making promises it cannot keep, employees will learn that career projections are not practical and assume the only way to advance is to move on. 

Ensure a Top Performer’s Work Has Meaning

An organization should recognize the importance that engaging in meaningful work can have for employees. Recognizing a higher purpose to projects can have a remarkable effect on engagement. Doing good simply by performing one’s regular tasks can inspire employees and have profound, positive effects on attendance rates and employee motivation. 

When an employee feels as though his or her individual efforts have a purpose, everyday tasks take on new meaning. An employee may push to grow as an individual. If an employee is not able to make this connection, then the role becomes a simple job, a paycheck, or a means to an end. 

The alignment of personal goals with organizational ones is crucial when ensuring a top performer’s work has meaning. If an employee does not feel a symbiotic relationship exists between his or her goals and the organization’s, then the employee may look elsewhere for a better fit—or worse, actively stifle the progress of business goals or objectives. 

What matters to the organization should matter to the employees, and vice versa. While the viability of this alignment can and should be explored at the talent acquisition stage, it also should continue to be emphasized throughout the employee lifecycle as corporate priorities may shift and evolve. 

By engaging in good habits with respect to retaining top talent, an organization may better meet its business goals, increase productivity, and reduce turnover costs. Retaining top performers should be a continuous, introspective investigation that does not rely merely on an infrequently administered engagement survey.

Marta Moakley, JD, is Legal editor at XpertHR, an online HR compliance resource. Moakley covers topics related to HR strategy and management, training and development, employee relations, and employee communications. She holds a Juris Doctor degree from Georgetown University Law Center and a Master of Arts in English from Florida International University. Prior to joining XpertHR, she litigated a number of cases regarding civil rights, business ethics, whistleblowing, and compliance. To download a copy of “9 Effective Habits for Retaining Top Talent,” visit XpertHR at:

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