3 Simple Ways to Retain Top Talent

Dec 27, 2012

The tough economy has taken a toll on all workers, even the most productive ones. Let’s assume you are already compensating your top employees to the best of your ability. Besides doing this, how do you keep them motivated and committed to your business?

The critical considerations here are time and attention. While employees like to feel valued, not everyone wants to be valued in the same way. You need to invest time to find out the right approach for each employee.

Try these three management techniques to help retain top talent. They seem (and are) simple, but are not as commonly used as you might think:

#1 Ask

Set up a meeting and spend the first few minutes establishing the goal and getting the employee’s buy-in. For example, you could say, “You know times have been tough, and our company has had to control costs, unfortunately including salaries. But you’re one of my key employees. During this meeting, I’d like to talk about what’s important to you, and how we might work together to ensure a good work experience. How does that sound?”

Then ask questions to learn what your star wants and needs. You may have a perk in mind that doesn’t do a thing for the employee. One CEO decided to allow a top producer, a mother, to work from home—but her perspective was that even with a sitter, having small children around was harder than being in the office. Great perk, just not for her.

Asking questions allows employees to disclose their feelings and assumptions, and helps them articulate their own perspectives. Ask the employee to tell you about his or her frustrations and successes. Keep questions open-ended rather than closed (requiring a yes or no answer). Beware of sounding judgmental. Questions that begin with “why” can put employees on the defensive, so use them sparingly.

Some things you could ask include: “What do you want to accomplish on the job and off? What gets you most enthusiastic about this job? What will help you be more successful?”

Employees may be inclined to give only answers they think you want to hear. You can help open up the conversation with questions such as “Please tell me more. What else? What’s exciting to you about this?”

#2 Listen

Here’s your goal: Listen 80 percent of the time. Decide in advance that you won’t interrupt with arguments, disclaimers, or explanations. Be present to the conversation. Turn off your cell phone, mute the message notice on your computer, and close the office door.

Be prepared to spend 15 to 20 minutes in this phase of the conversation. When you do speak, recap what the employee said. Some examples: “So what I understand you to be saying is”… “It seems as if you’re feeling”… “Let me know if I’m on the right track…” This demonstrates you’re listening carefully and helps clarify the issues.

#3 Talk

Once you’ve recapped your employee’s comments, share your own assumptions, thoughts, feelings, and conclusions. Keep in mind that your role is not to provide solutions, but to open up communication. If the CEO or manager provides the solution, it’s his, not the employee’s. You want the employee to take ownership of the plan.

So toss around ideas to set the stage for mutual action plans. For successful brainstorming, ensure all ideas get aired, no matter how outrageous they seem. Create as   many options as possible. And keep the energy up! Good questions include: “What are the possibilities? What other angles can you think of? What have we missed?”

When you’ve exhausted all the possibilities, you have two options: to move on to the action plan, or schedule another meeting to discuss actions. Let’s say, for example, that you’re discussing allowing the employee to work remotely. Have the employee develop the plan that will make this successful. Assigning him this responsibility ensures buyin and a commitment to making it work. It also allows you to evaluate his thinking.

Be bold. One executive met with her top players and was candid about being unable to increase compensation. However, she told them she was open to helping them improve their work experience in other ways. That extended to helping them find another job if they concluded they could no longer flourish there.

Her one request: Don’t be afraid to tell me you’re thinking of leaving. Risky? Perhaps. But being open drives home the employee’s value and allows for the possibility of creative solutions.

Barbara Kurka, an experienced HR professional, offers executive coaching; management training, and HR consulting, the latter uniquely geared toward small businesses. She can be reached at bfkurka@gmail.com.


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