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Nurturing Top Talent

What is it that really works when it comes to keeping your top employees fully engaged? What is it that will keep them from looking someplace else?

by Mark Lanfear
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Though summer is gone, it has a way of lingering. Perhaps that’s because it’s just fun to get wrapped up in the nostalgia of it all. For me, summer begins when I start eating the classic snacks from my childhood like Faygo soda pop and Better Made Potato Chips, both made in my home state of Michigan. It’s when I start savoring the spirit of July 4th and our traditional family get-togethers on the lake. It’s when I can conjure a more childish sense of anticipation, too, with memories of wanting school to be out and waiting for one of my favorite bands, the Beach Boys, to perform locally.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to anticipate summer that way, of course. When you become a working adult, seasons tend to run together. Still, summer has a way of defining us. I’m still learning about life from those summer concerts. Some of the best ideas from the Beach Boys still linger in my mind to this day—like never leaving behind the best people in your life.

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Human capital managers in any industry should be thinking the same way when it comes to talent: Don’t ever take your best talent for granted. Easier said than done, right? So what is it that really works when it comes to keeping your top employees fully engaged? What is it that will keep them from looking someplace else, especially in the age of free agency and talent gaps, when the best and the brightest expect so much more than a paycheck when they come to work?

There’s no magic formula. But it starts with understanding the expectations that employees are now thrusting upon the modern workplace. Some will always be there, like the classic summer song. Many expect higher salaries, better benefits, and tuition reimbursement, for example, as workforce surveys indicate again and again. Other data indicate that career potential and development, along with opportunities to be involved in new experiences on the job, are high on the list of concerns for the best employees. Micro-management and a lack of communication are also seen as the antithesis of the long-term health of a company’s talent retention plan.

But if your company is doing a pretty good job already on these basic fronts, what else does it take to retain your best employees? You might have been willing a long time ago to stand in line to see your favorite summer bands. Valuable talent, however, isn’t that patient. Now they’re looking to their direct supervisors, and even HR departments as a whole, to be the cornerstones of good, innovative policy making when it comes to keeping them happy. After all, the companies that are retaining the best people today are finally starting to understand the “human” component in human resources.

Employee recognition, it turns out, is what counts now and it can take many forms. Clarity in expectations, quality feedback about performance, and effective meetings that don’t waste people’s time are all great— and relatively easy—ways to recognize the value of great employees. More challenging, however, is the creation of a culture in which the employee has the ability to speak his or her mind freely. You hired your best talent because you value their knowledge, right? Then solicit it on a regular basis. Make your need for their input known. Then make it public. Bonuses are nice, but recognition from peers can sometimes be far more rewarding.

Leaders who prioritize employee recognition strategies like this that go beyond the basics are leaders who truly understand the changing face of work around the globe. Such strategies reinforce the most important outcomes to any business. Recognition (whatever form it takes) is systematic, simple, immediate, and packs a punch. People who feel recognized will care more about their work and produce better results in the long run.

As employee retention becomes more and more important to the long-term success of a company, we must all take the time to get it right. Replacing a valuable employee can sometimes cost more than double an annual salary. High turnover causes insecurity among those who stay. Summer may be gone for another year, but let’s hold on to it for the outstanding employees who truly drive innovation throughout our organizations. Over time, the ability to recognize and nurture top talent will become tightly integrated into your overall business strategy, helping you mitigate future risks and enabling you to always look back fondly on the steps you took to succeed.