Nurturing High Performers

This article accompanies Keeping the Keepers

Monday, February 7, 2011
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There is a way to retain top performers without breaking the bank, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, a Columbia University professor, author of Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business is Down and founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy.

Hewlett says that, even in the recession, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the survivors were considering leaving their jobs and nearly one-quarter (24 percent) were actively looking for new jobs.

Even worse than flight risk, she argues, is plummeting rates of employee engagement.

Recent surveys of the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force (50 multinational companies) involved in the Center for Work-Life Policy find that 73 percent of respondents are "demoralized" and 64 percent are "demotivated."

Hewlett offers these pragmatic interventions to nurture high performers:

* Create a "no-spin" zone of clear and copious communication.

At Moody's, for example, companywide town-hall meetings are immediately followed by mini-town halls between managers and their teams.

Team leaders are instructed to ask, "Were your questions answered? What did you think? What are your concerns going forward?" They then pass the responses up and down the ladder so everyone feels in the loop.

* Use time as currency.

Flexible-work arrangements, including mini-sabbaticals, working at home and guilt-free exercise breaks have been proven to boost employee productivity and cut employer costs.

For example, Citigroup actually saves money and attracts millennials with its new Alternative Workplace Strategy that encourages remote working and hoteling.

* Create career opportunities.

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A-players have high expectations for their career trajectories. Ironically, reduced teams offer more options for stretch assignments and cross-functional roles.

When formal professional-development programs are cut by shrinking budgets, smart leaders will look for hands-on experience to strengthen their performers' resumes.

* Restructure with care.

If you're forced to cut jobs, make sure people understand why they are being let go -- and set up support networks that help displaced employees scope out new jobs.

Booz & Co. created a talent bank of former Booz consultants whom they call on for short-term projects, refer to clients and can tap when conditions improve.

"If there ever was a time to nurture top performers, it's now," Hewlett says. "Talent is the gift that keeps on giving -- and organizations are depending on their top talent to fire on all cylinders to help them survive the worst market in modern memory."

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