How to Retain Superstar Performers in a Tough Market

Many organizations are facing growing challenges when it comes to maintaining a productive workforce. There may be particular concerns about retaining their star performers; employees performing well in their jobs with plenty of runway for further improvement. There has been so much movement in the labor market – particularly among star performers – that organizations should move proactively to retain superstars. Star performers often have different motivators than other employees. Their motivations include not just by money, but also employee development opportunities that help them grow and give them exposure to the organization’s senior leaders.

“Organizations spend considerable resources recruiting and deploying stars – high performers with greater visibility – in the hopes that they will not only create value through their own contributions, but also elevate the game of those around them,” the Wall Street Journal reported recently. “Working with stars can sometimes inspire colleagues to dream bigger, learn faster, and work harder. But it doesn’t always work out that way.” Effectively managing star performers can improve those outcomes.

Employee Development: Key to Retaining Top Performers

The goal is to take a few shining diamonds in the organization and find the right fit to help them grow. The literature on star performers recommends tactical steps such as managing them carefully, avoiding overloading them with too much work, and not telling them how to do things. However, we don’t see a lot written about how to grow superstars and keep them around.

I can reference several examples where star performers are given special assignments to lead an organization transformation. Those assignments include reorganizing a large department, implementing enterprise software, or other undertakings that change ways of working across the organization. I find this approach works well for both employers and employees. The star performers grow through high-profile work that might not be part of what they do now. The organization benefits from successful results and retains more top performers by giving them employee development opportunities that sustain their engagement.

Selecting the Right Leader for your Transformation

While working with numerous clients, we outline a four-step methodology to evaluate the fit between a star performer and the transformation assignment.

Step 1: Identify the top five capabilities requirements to lead a given transformation. They may include:

  • Flexibility
  • Ability to influence
  • Grit/determination
  • Technical knowledge
  • Communication skills
  • Commitment to new ways of working

Step 2: Assess each candidate’s current skills in these categories. Evaluate the person’s skills against the necessary capabilities and assign a numerical rating. For example, 1 might signify someone who needs significant development to build abilities vs. 3 for someone who is already possesses them.

Step 3: Share your thinking with the evaluation group. If a given candidate is weak in some areas, how can you close the gap through employee development opportunities like training and mentoring?Alternately, are they over-qualified? If they have done similar work, they may become bored if they are not challenged or learning new skills.

Step 4: Combine your scores to rank how well each candidate matches the capability requirements. Look for someone with a good mix of skills and developmental opportunities.

Finding Your Goldilocks

In the last step, consider the “Goldilocks principle.” Like Goldilocks sampling the three bears’ porridge, you want someone who is “not too hot, not too cold, but just right.” A person who possesses all capabilities to lead the transformation is not necessarily the right choice. It may feel like we are reducing risk if we give Mahesh this big project because he’s done it before. But he’s really got to want it. He may become bored if his qualifications exceed requirements and he doesn’t find the opportunity to be challenging. A better approach is giving someone else the opportunity to stretch their personal skills.

On the other end of spectrum, there are people who will never be successful. Often, we see people entering into an organization as a “savior” – a brilliant genius who understands the work and the stakes. Yet they may be horrible with people – arrogant, and unable to effectively influence others. We must assess whether there are too many deficiencies to make it work.

The middle ground is often the better choice. Seek someone who is strong in certain areas, could grow in others, and wants to improve their skills so they can reach the next level. When it comes to employee development, the key is to find the right Goldilocks. It is important to help up-and-coming stars grow but recognize the risks to both sides while that process unfolds.

Building a Star Performer’s Skills

One experience with a real-world example of this Goldilocks effect is in my work with an IT leader leading a reorganization of her IT organization. This employee was already in IT, but the reorganization role requires greater responsibilities than her normal job. She would face the C-suite, provide updates, work with HR on people issues, and determine how to change other people in the organization and their ways of working. She led a change team of people from diverse and different parts of the organization. Following that project’s success, she is now leading an enterprise-wide employee experience overhaul affecting other departments.

While she remains an IT leader, this employee now has the context and skill sets to manage complex transformation projects. She better understands HR and has substantial influence at senior level. Now she’s helping the organization attract and retain talent. In turn, this will help the enterprise thrive in the current and future environment.

Employee Development: Beyond Project Management

Leading an organizational transformation goes far beyond project management. The change leader also serves as the face of what you want to do in organization and communicates with people across the enterprise. These leaders need a broad set of skills to achieve success. Better outcomes result for everyone if you ensure there is a good fit between your star performer and the transformation requirements at hand.