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Cultivating Long-Term Loyalty

Five employee retention strategies for a high-performance environment

by Kyle Lagunas
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All high-performance environments share a serious devotion to results.

They’re competitive, stressful workplaces where mediocrity is disdained and failure intolerable. Moreover, individuals who thrive in these environments tend to be “A” players with intense ambition. And they are always on the lookout for greener pastures. How can high-performing employers better retain these critical employees?

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The challenge is often to change how companies approach retention—reactively. Retention issues are ignored until the company suspects an employee might bail, at which point they’re addressed by offering the employee some kind of enticement to stay, and then it’s back to business as usual.

This approach might work in the short run but does nothing to cultivate longer-term loyalty.

A better approach is to address retention proactively, as a strategic issue. I recently connected with two thought leaders in talent management strategy to discuss how to do this in high-performance environments. Based on our conversation, here are five things any organization can do to proactively combat turnover.

1. Hire retainable employees

The pressure’s on from Day One in a high-performance environment. While some thrive under pressure, others falter. Elissa Tucker, human capital management knowledge specialist at APQC, says the first thing leading organizations are doing to curtail this type of turnover is to focus on “hiring retainable employees.”

While there are some obvious indicators of a candidate’s ability to deliver consistently (e.g., three to five years’ tenure in a similar role), there are other signals that can provide insight in your sourcing and screening.

Tucker suggests working with your managers and top performers to identify what backgrounds, skills, or personality characteristics your retainable employees have in common.

2. Plan careers, don’t fill roles

It’s easy to focus on the near term when managing people in a high-performance environment. You bring in A players with the expectation that they’ll succeed in the role for which you’ve hired them—and unrealistically assume they will stay in that role forever. Your top performers are thinking about their career, and you should be too.

“Best-practice organizations work to help individuals plan to stay with the organization—to plan their careers with the organization,” says Tucker. The key is to guide your employees in mapping out how they can attain their career goals within your company.

For example, if a top salesperson sees her current role as a rung in the ladder up to senior management, outline some long-term goals that will get her there. If another is in it just for the money, keep him in challenging roles that will reward him for working hard and allow him to play hard.

3. Make retention personal

Every employee is motivated by different things, and retention strategies thus need to be tailored down to the individual level.

Steve Miranda, managing director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, Cornell University ILR School, says, “The key phrase is ‘specialized efforts.’” Successful organizations, he says, don’t view retention initiatives as “one size fits all.” Instead, they’re making retention strategies personal. How? By simply asking, “What motivates you?”

You may be surprised to find that monetary incentives are low on the list of responses you get. These days, A players are more concerned with challenging work, personal and professional growth opportunities, work/ life balance, and workplace flexibility.

4. Get to the heart of underperformance

Let’s face it: underperformance happens, but you don’t want to lose employees who were previously strong performers. If you notice a drop in performance, Miranda advises against writing them off without first getting to the heart of the issue.

In my conversation with Miranda, we broke underperformance down into a few root causes:

  • Skill and competency issues often come up when someone’s been promoted into a role they weren’t quite ready for. Fortunately, these can be addressed with coaching and training—and usually for a fraction of the cost of replacing an employee.
  • Behavioral issues are usually more difficult. “If it’s a behavioral issue,” Miranda says, “identify the source of the issue to get an idea of whether it’s something worth investing the time and effort in.”
  • Personal issues are a leading cause of burnout among top performers. Things come up (divorce, health issues, mortgage issues, etc.) and can distract employees from their work and affect their ability to deliver. In these cases, a little support and flexibility will go a long way toward cultivating loyalty.

You may uncover trends in underperformance that you can use to your benefit. Are employees bored with the work? Are people burning out after six months? This kind of feedback is vital to the refined people process that supports success and curtails turnover.

5. Invest in your line managers

“Employees don’t quit jobs,” says Miranda. “They quit managers.” He estimates that 80 percent of turnover is driven by the environment a manager creates for an employee (compared to 20 percent resulting from issues with company culture). Because of this, any investments in training and development of your line managers are well spent.

The success of your retention strategies are ultimately subject to your line managers’ ability to deliver on initiatives you put in place. According to Tucker, “Whatever your company values, you have to be sure your managers are executing on it. Help them help you reduce turnover.

Teach them how to empower employees to succeed and grow rather than just drive performance.” It’s also critical to keep the line of communication about careers wide open between employees and managers, especially because career goals change over time. Build more opportunities for employee check-ins (formal and informal) with managers. As Tucker points out, “Individualized conversation needs to happen on a regular basis.”