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Retaining Star Employees

By Michelle Yozzo Drake

As the owner of a small business, I'm always on the lookout for the creme de la creme of employees to add to my staff. It's only natural: you want your business to be a success and to do so, you have to have a stellar team in place with the right skills and talents.

In past posts, we've discussed how to hire the right people for the job...but once they're part of the team, how do you hold onto "star" employees?

The workplace has changed dramatically over the years as younger generations have become privvy to rapid advancements in techology and more opportunities than they can count. It used to be that when you found a position in a company, you were a loyal employee, moving steadily up the ranks until retirement rolled around.

Today, that concept is as antiquated to many twenty- and thirty-somethings as punch card computers and record players. Star employees in particular seem to always have one eye on the door, searching for the next great opportunity they can move on to. And many of them don't think twice about leaving if certain aspects of their jobs aren't what they want them to be, leaving employers to wonder why they left.

I received this e-mail from a man who was struggling to keep his star employees from walking out the door:

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"Dear Michelle,

I run my own small business - an advertising agency - and over the past six months, two of my top performers have left to take other job offers. When I asked them why, they tried to pull the old 'it's not you, it's me' routine. I've tried to provide my employees with the salaries, benefits and perks comparable to their talents, but in some way I must have failed if they're leaving me.

What can I do to hang on to my best employees?"

My best tip for employee retention? Keeping the lines of communication wide open from their first day on the job. If you create an atmosphere where your employees feel comfortable talking to you about issues that arise or concerns that they have (without fear of you blowing your top or firing them for their impudence), then you rest a little easier that you won't be blindsided by the sudden departure of any employee. Encourage your staff to come to you with their opinions and suggestions, listen to them, and if you can't give them what they want, explain why and search for alternate solutions. It's my belief that if you genuinely try to find ways to develop a fair and positive work environment, your employees will reward you with their loyalty.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran an article by Marshall Loeb from MarketWatch entitles "Six Reasons Top Performers Seek Out Greener Pastures." (You can read the full article here.) I agreed with this excellent article and wanted to share with you the gist of it here on my blog in answer to Victor's question.

Hearing "it's not you, it's me," is completely useless: as small business owners, we need to know what our employees are looking for and if they leave, why and how can we prevent that from happening again in the future.

Here are the six top reasons that highly skilled employees will leave one job for another (and I've added my own two cents to Mr. Loeb's fantastic insights):

1. "They receive few rewards for good behavior."
If high performers receive no extra kudos or compensation for when they perform extraordinarily, they begin to wonder whether it's worth putting in the extra effort. Are you acknowledging your high performers? Or does everybody get treated the same? What are the extra rewards for outstanding work? You probably don't have to buy your top performer a brand new Mercedes to thank her for a job well done; it could be as simple as offering a little public or private acknowledgement. A little "thank you" or "good job" can go a long way.

To make a thank even more personal, find out a little bit about their hobbies and interests. One of my employees loves clothes from a certain retailer, so when I wanted to say thank you to her after finishing a huge project, I gave her a gift card for that retailer. She not only appreciated the reward but was also touched that I took the time to figure out what she would really enjoy.

2. "They resent being micromanaged."
You're great at what you do...would YOU want someone breathing down your neck and nitpicking everything you do? Most top performers are mavericks; they have their own systems and ways of doing things, often outside of what's considered "the norm". Keep this in mind, employers: that unconventional style is probably a huge part of why they're so phenomenal in the first place. Make sure that you check in with them once in a while to ensure that they're on the right track and fulfilling your company's mission and goals, but be sure to give them space and a little breathing room, too. When you pop in for a quick update, be clear that you're interested in their progress, not keeping tabs on them or try to control them. So are you micromanaging your top performers, Victor? Because that could be what's driving them away.

3. "They feel underutilized or unchallenged."
When I was in school, I remember some of the kids who were always getting in trouble were also some of the smartest kids in the class. Why? Because they were bored! What's the old saying, "Idle hands are the Devil's playground?" Well, an idle mind in the workplace is prime for seeking out new challenges...in a new job. Is the work that's coming into your business challenging enough for your top performers? Or are they looking for more? As a top performer, if I'm bored daily with the projects coming across my desk, I'm quickly going to try and find a job that's more challenging...unless my employer recognizes my unrest, communicates with me about it, and helps me find more rewarding work within the company.

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4. "They see no room at the top."
In a small business, there are only so many rungs on the ladder to the top position - and as the owner, you're probably sitting at the very top yourself! Your best performers may look around and see that the highest position they'll ever achieve isn't high enough for them. They may realize that they want a larger environment where there is more opportunity for advancement for them. Unless you're willing to forfeit your position as owner, CEO, president, etc., that's something that you can't really change; however, you might be able to work with your top performers and come up with creative ways for their advancement, such as bigger more lucrative projects, partnerships or the creation of new divisions. 

5. "They're faced with unreasonable demands."
Often, high performers carry the load for the whole organization - that's a downside to being so good at what you do. Employers and fellow employees depend on you to swoop in, work your magic, and win another victory for the company. That's a lot of strain and responsibility to put on one person's shoulders! Many stars will begin to resent the fact that they're constantly bombarded with projects and issues while their colleagues seem to have it much easier. No one wants to feel like they're doing all the work while others are skating by doing the bare minimum (especially if any of the other reasons listed here are true). To avoid this, perform a workload analysis of everyone in your organization. See how evenly the work is distributed among your employees, and if your high performers have a higher load, make sure that they're appreciated and compensated for it. 

6. "They aren't apprised of changes in the organization."
Nothing is more frustrating for a high-level executive than to be thrust unexpectedly into a sudden wholesale change in the organization. They'll feel like they've been left in the dark, that their perspectives haven't been taken into consideration...and that could be just the catalyst they need to find a new job where they'll be respected and appreciated. The best remedy for this is going back to the first piece of advice I gave you: keep the lines of communication wide open. As soon as you're certain that a shift is going to be made, share that info with your employees and get their perspectives on it. Sometimes these things can't be avoided and aren't in the best interests of the employees, but even in those cases, communication can make the difference.

Well Victor, I hope that these six points helped you. Special thanks to Marshall Loeb and the Wall Street Journal for printing such a great article. Here's hoping that all of us small business owners out there can find - and hang onto - star employees!



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I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestioned ability of a man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor. Henry David Thoreau