How to Retain Top People – Five Critical Steps

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D. copyright 2007

To stay successful, companies cannot simply focus on recruiting because the demand for excellent employees is always strong, even in difficult financial times. Most successful companies have acknowledged that they must go out of their way to provide incentives to their top employees and executives to induce them to stay long enough: great pay, beautiful campuses, health benefits, stock options, referral services for childcare and legal advice, etc. These are just some of the basics to stay even with the pack.

The five major retention strategies that the general consensus of retention research has shown to be the most important - with an extra focus on one with the most creative potential - are:

  • Competitive compensation: Commonly thought of as great pay + equity sharing; compensation is really a much broader subject. Surprisingly, however, although most people think it is the prime motivator, according to the research, most are retained by a combination of the basic five with money being the least important element.

  • Environmental factors: The “corporate culture” that most people want to feel proud to be identified with. This can include: respected leaders, regard for the broader community, integrity, diversity and fairness (i.e., being “good citizens”).

  • Adequate support: this includes adequate facilities, minimal red tape, top training, competent supervisors, minimal disruption by and adequate intervention with troublesome colleagues and supervisors.

  • Growth opportunity strategies: An ongoing corporate structure that provides individualized learning opportunities and support of career and personal development, i.e., classes, individualized instruction, varied and challenging work, etc.

  • Human relations strategies: This is the area with the most creative potential – where you can get the most bang for your efforts. “Human relations strategies” is short for developing a closer connection with employees, that allow you to understand their personal needs and desires and thus help tailor retention strategies. Granted this is a more time consuming task than sending an employee to a class or giving them a pay raise and employers often resist it. We would prefer to think that if we hire competent employees and compensate them well, they would not need our personal attention. And pigs can fly!

For example, people need to be told directly, face-to-face, (more frequently than we think) that they and their efforts are appreciated. In my consulting work with executives, even they often lament how alone and under appreciated they feel. One CEO said, “I’m just a high paid quarterback who will be replaced when I stumble.” In other cases, your more personal attention could uncover that an employee wants to develop a skill that is not listed in the onsite training offerings. This employee’s needs might better be addressed by sending him/her to an expert outside of the company. However, many employees feel hesitant to ask for things “off the menu” which might – to them – reveal a deficient area in the eyes of upper management because it wasn’t part of the sanctioned and therefore, “normal” offerings that all employees are expected to learn. Developing a personal connection could facilitate trust between the employee and supervisor that would then allow the employee to ask for what they need and speak up more in general.

The more personalized our treatment of our employees the more they will feel you and the company are an important part of their lives. It is much harder for anyone (employee) to abandon another (employer) if they have a meaningful and authentic personal relationship. This is a reason to stay that can be more compelling than money. There are many other ways to creatively develop and employ retention strategies once you make the personal connections. The only limitation is your reluctance to try. Doing it takes commitment and ongoing effort often beyond our personal or corporate comfort zone. Isn’t that what makes outstanding companies outstanding?