Flight of the High Performers

A new survey finds nearly half of U.S. companies' high performers are actively looking for other jobs. Why are they seeking greener pastures and what are employers doing to keep them?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008
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Human resource executives would be wise to keep a closer eye on their company's high-performing employees. Chances are, a good number of them are inching ever closer to the door.

According to a recent survey of 16,237 U.S. workers by Marietta, Ga.-based consultancy Leadership IQ, 47 percent of high performers are actively looking for new jobs, by posting and submitting their resumes and even going to interviews. Compare that to only 18 percent of identified low performers who say they are looking for new jobs, and 25 percent of middle performers who are actively searching, according to the findings.

This prelude to an exodus of valuable employees is a problem facing many companies, regardless of the current state of the economy. To avoid the problem is to risk watching your best assets walk right out the door and possibly into the arms of the competition.

"High performers keep companies in business," says Mark Murphy, Leadership IQ's CEO. "So every company is at risk if these people leave. If you lose some low performers, you might actually be better off. But when your best people quit, revenue drops, quality suffers and snafus increase. Even large companies can take a big hit with the departure of just a few key employees."

The list of reasons many high performers leave their current jobs may be as varied as the skill sets of the high performers themselves, but Murphy thinks the No. 1 reason most high performers leave is clear.

"Frankly, we treat our high performers worse than any other employee," he says. "When a manager has a tough project upon which the whole company depends, to whom do they turn? Who gets the late hours and the stress? It's not the low performers."

Some companies are catching onto the dangers of this negligence and are implementing programs to engage these employees before they burn out or fly the coop, from better identification and communication of their prized status to allowing them to follow their interests and participate in projects outside their immediate job description.

Identify First

At the Midland, Mich., headquarters of The Dow Chemical Co., the first step toward keeping high performers around is simply making sure they know who they are.

"It would be an absolute shame to have [a high performer] leave without ever knowing that" the company viewed that employee as such, says Steve Robison, Dow's HR director of succession management.

To increase communication with, and better facilitate identification of, high-performing employees, Dow created last year an in-house, proprietary online tool it calls My Profile.

The site allows all employees to share their job aspirations, which can then be viewed by their supervisors. The profiles can be updated 24/7, and histories are kept to give both current and future business leaders a working narrative of their employees' evolving goals and aspirations.

"We ask them to share their experiences inside and outside the company," Robison says, "as well as career aspirations and anything else that might be relevant, such as willingness to relocate."

According to Robison, the tool serves as the opening lines for future conversations.

"It doesn't replace the dialogue; it's the starting point," he says. "Everyone's starting point is going to be different, but this provides [one] and gives the leader the basis to develop job opportunities for the employee."

My Profile also helps Dow "warehouse" its employees' capabilities, a task Robison thinks most companies could do better. "Companies do a very good job of warehousing their products, but they don't necessarily do as good [creating inventories] of what our people's capabilities are." After all, "you can't manage it if you can't measure it."

Of the approximately 45,000 worldwide employees at Dow, Robison says 20 percent are designated high performers, and are identified through what he calls a "relatively rigorous and defined" process in which supervisors rate employee performance.

He says the company looks at each employee's performance against his or her goals as one indication of meeting high-performer criteria.

Once that's determined, the goals are compared to a global competency model.

After supervisors identify their high-performing employees, Dow's HR department swings into action to organize calibration sessions, where supervisors get together to make sure they are comparing apples to apples. "You don't want to compare someone in marketing to a plant supervisor," he says.

The HR function "facilitates all the calibration sessions, and helps set them up," he says, to the tune of more than 200 sessions across the company.

Then there's a diversity review to ensure fair treatment, and the information is updated on the company's online performance-management tool. The employee is notified of his or her status during the annual performance review.

The high-performing group list is reviewed annually to ensure that workers with longer-range goals are being given the proper access to resources in order to achieve them. Robison says the company's attention to this cream of the crop reaps untold benefits in the long run.

"It's all about development," Robison says. "We're looking to build capacity and build a talent pipeline in the organization."

New Opportunities

Indeed, the opportunity to put their skills to use in a different setting or develop new skills are two major reasons high performers seek new job opportunities elsewhere.

According to Scott Thomas, senior vice president and senior HR business partner team leader at Charlotte, N.C.-based banking and financial services organization Wachovia Corp., employee engagement surveys consistently show that "advancement and development opportunities are a high priority for our employees."

In order to satisfy that demand, a new program, hGrid, has been instituted there that allows the 6,000 employees in the company's IT department the opportunity to work on new tasks and projects recommended by department leaders that may lie outside their current position.

"The hGrid program creates another avenue to development and exposure to further development," Thomas says.

Due to the cyclical nature of IT work, employees occasionally find themselves between projects and, therefore, have the time to spend pursuing new projects in areas that interest them. The hGrid system, created by Wachovia employees, works off the concept that harnessing unused cycles of both the company's networked computer-processing power and employee power during times when neither is being fully utilized makes sense. (The 'h' in hGrid stands for human.)

Using the program that was launched last November, IT leaders post conceptual projects they would like to see done that "may not fit the traditional business model, but [are] important enough to get done," says Mike Duke, program manager for the company's IT Innovations Portfolio.

The self-professed "senior connectologist" who helped develop the hGrid program says it "gives IT employees opportunities to work on important work requests that come in from all over the organization in their spare cycles."

Employees log on to the hGrid site and create a profile, where they can say, "I have some experience with this"or "I would like to get more involved in this area."

According to Duke, this kind of interchange and interaction is key to employee engagement. The hGrid system itself came about in the very same way.

"It was developed in less than 90 days by strong performers who volunteered, so hGrid was its own first volunteer program," Duke says.

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After their profile is created, they can explore the dozens of proposed projects, then use an online discussion area to exchange ideas in order to form bids to work on the project.

Before a bid can be made, employees must be approved by their manager to take on the new work. So far, more than 150 employees have volunteered to post profiles and have received approval to participate in projects found on hGrid.

Thomas says the program "isn't exclusively in the domain for high-potential employees," but only six volunteers have thus far been denied permission to participate -- a sign, he says, that shows the program is attracting the company's highest-performing workers.

The senior IT leaders who requested the work then weigh the bids and build dynamic teams by looking for demographic diversity and a range of skills from across departments. "[The teams] then take it, own it and get the project done. They're empowered to be successful," says Duke.

Since bidding began on April 28, more than 1,300 people have hit the site to view the projects.

"The response has been more positive than I could have imagined," says Duke.

In addition to facilitating the completion of new IT projects, Thomas says, the program is "definitely an opportunity for people who have some level of comfort in their current job and want to step out on a low-risk basis and see if they want to pursue another avenue."

"It's really unlike other transitional programs," Thomas adds, "where you have to give up your spot in order to pursue something else. That makes people resistant to pursuing opportunities."

Lifelong Career

By keeping employees focused on pursuing opportunities within the business rather than looking for them on the outside, one company is looking to return to the idea that an employee can build an entire career at one organization.

Linda Sharkey, vice president of people development at Palo Alto, Calif-based computer maker Hewlett Packard, says it's important for HR executives to "take the time to go out and know your high performers well, know your business and strategies well, and help people find the right path. ... That way, they know that someone is paying attention to who they are."

To that end, the company's "People Promise" program was initiated around "the whole notion that you can build a career here, by focusing on career development," she says.

"We have a tagline in our PC business that says, 'Computers are personal again.' We are making our people equation personal again by helping them leverage jobs within the company. The biggest thing that helps retention is being able to see career growth," Sharkey says.

The human resource department recently overhauled how it categorizes jobs for its 156,000 worldwide employees, by "collapsing" all their jobs into 400 "job families" to make it easier for employees to research online in order to plan for career moves within the organization.

The company also took a look at its own internal recruiting process and turned an eye toward giving its own high-performing employees the first crack at new openings.

"Now, we post our jobs internally [before going public] and then search our internal database, where we look for people who match the jobs. We're continuing to do more and more of that at every level of our employee base," she says. "It's another way we support the People Promise."

The program also allows employees to "do career-development plans for themselves, so they can continue to grow within the job they have or within other jobs," Sharkey says.

However one chooses to entice high performers to stay with the organization, Dow's Robison says a company needs to effectively communicate its plans for employees' future development.

"The challenge is to make sure we have a compelling case as to why people should stay with us, and oftentimes, that is going to align with development opportunities. If you can't make that case, then I don't know how you can expect people to not go somewhere else where they will have those opportunities."

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