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The Dos and Don'ts of Recruiting and Managing Top Talent

Recruiting and managing the average employee is a complex task that requires a myriad of skills and abilities for it to be done successfully. However, dealing with prospects and employees who are in the highest echelons of talent is an altogether different task requiring different strategies and tactics. Below are some important things to consider when recruiting and managing the top talent in your organization.

Don’t Assume Employees Are Engaged

You have advertised your company, sent an employment offer letter and employment agreement, generally put your best foot forward for the talented individuals you wish to recruit and retain, and feel like they are all on board with your company and its aims and goals. However, although you feel like they’re on board with your company and its goals, you’re probably wrong. Studies have shown that these top-quality individuals are:

  • looking to move within the year;
  • not putting forth their best effort for the tasks they are given; or
  • not on board with your company’s goals, despite whatever lip service they give to it.

This really shouldn’t be a surprise if you think about it. Most talented employees know they are talented, can readily determine the value of their talent, and, like all of us, are always looking out for number one. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is something to keep in mind.

In addition, many companies look at talented employees and make the mistake of setting the bar too high. It is important to challenge all employees, but expecting more from a highly talented one is a sure way to burn them out and, as a result, send them looking for better alternatives.

Even though the job market has been somewhere between poor and abysmal for a few years, highly talented employees believe that their talents will still shine through in a buyer’s market.

Talented employees are also disengaged because of an overall increase in employee disengagement. When the downturn began in 2007, overall employee engagement took a nose dive.

Do Recognize Talented Employees

Companies often mistake salary as the only way to recognize employee accomplishments, but this isn’t the case. Everyone enjoys a bigger paycheck or a bonus, but the boost of awards and other public recognitions is also significant, and may be more rewarding than more money alone.

Recognizing individual accomplishments is best done when it can be linked to corporate goals or achievements. This fosters engagement by making the value of the individual explicit to the corporation, and increases the “buy in” feeling of the awardee.

It’s also important to measure the vital signs of your employees’ morale on a regular basis. Major multinationals have been innovative in this department, from assessing employee engagement using short but highly focused checklists handed out to crucial employees, to using career “stewards” to meet with high achieving employees and direct their careers with that company in more satisfying and challenging directions.

Often, companies seek to establish and maintain an egalitarian organization and are afraid to have what may be perceived as a “favored class” of employees. As a result, they do not offer incentives.

Although this goal is laudable, the evidence strongly suggests that an incentives regime doesn’t divide an organization—rather, it makes all employees, whether they are recipients of the incentives or not, more satisfied with the company.

Don’t Equate Performance with Potential

Oftentimes companies consider a high performer’s past quality of output as a prologue to the kind of output that will occur going forward. However, that is incorrect far more often than not.

Most top performers simply don’t have the tools necessary to carry their high performance forward into the future. As a result, a company that doesn’t recognize this fact is wasting their energy on talent that simply isn’t all that talented.

According to Peter Drucker, “the best way to predict the future is to create it,” and creating a future full of high performers in your organization requires you to ensure that you can identify them in the present.

There are three main attributes possessed by perennial high performers:

  • Ability
  • Engagement
  • Aspiration

Judging ability is obvious. Does the individual have the skills necessary to continue their success in the future? Do they have the emotional maturity, technical know-how, and intellectual skills to continue delivering the quality of output already shown?

Engagement—the personal connection an individual feels towards the company and its goals—is no less critical. To determine whether (and to what degree) an employee is engaged in the company, the question that must be answered honestly is what it would take for that employee to take a position with another company tomorrow. This opens the door to identifying what elements of a particular position are required to foster engagement, and, as a result, shows which of those elements are missing in their current role.

Ascertaining ambition is much more difficult to do. The best way to do it is via direct questioning regarding how far the employee desires to go in the company, in what timeframe, and what motivates them.

Don’t Leave Talent to Poor Management

The temptation is strong and the short-term rewards are obvious for leaving the development of top talent to line management. Line managers interact with them on a daily basis and have a good handle on the strengths and weaknesses of their people. It’s also more economically preferable in the short term to leave it to line management to develop talent.

But that is a short-sighted view. Top talent should be seen as a long-term company investment and developed by general managers, not line managers. Line managers have a tendency to view performance on a much shorter timescale. Additionally, a line manager is likely, if not expected, to keep their top talent, which usually means they are not going to share that talent. General managers, on the other hand, tend to take a longer view of performance and are in a position to better allocate talent among managers and departments.

Don’t Shield from Stress and Failure

You have top talent and you want to keep it. You expose that talent to as little risk as possible, or maybe you feel adventurous and let them have a bit of exposure, but that’s it. Seems like a good idea, right?

Not really. The best way to develop and keep talented employees is to expose them to challenges, allow them to experience stress, and put them in a position where they may fail. Safe simulations can never fully replicate the stress and challenge of the real thing. Consequently, safe situations do not provide the same growth potential as real-life situations.

Don’t Expect Top Talent to Share the Pain

A time-tested leadership skill is enduring the same conditions as the people you’re leading. While top talent may be leaders in your organization, expecting them to share in the sacrifices made by leadership may be a mistake. As mentioned above, talented individuals typically have a pretty clear understanding of the value of their talent. If you are challenging them appropriately, they are most likely putting forth more effort and doing more work than their counterparts. As a result, if and when it’s time to freeze salaries or cut bonuses, you risk finding your talent disaffected at the prospect of carrying the same greater load with no greater benefit and shopping their talent elsewhere.

Even in difficult markets, do whatever you can to continue to reward top talent. As the market is in such dire straits, many organizations have done away with incentives completely, and because of this, the incentives expectations of employees are lower than they’ve ever been. As a result, the “bang for your buck” for firms that do offer monetary incentives is greater. To make sure you are prepared if your top talent goes elsewhere despite your best efforts, make sure you have a valid, signed non-disclosure agreement and non-compete agreement on file to minimize any damage a top performer can do after they leave.

Do Include High Performers in Strategy

According to Stephen Covey:

"The bottom line is, when people are crystal clear about the most important priorities of the organization and team they work with and prioritized their work around those top priorities, not only are they many times more productive, they discover they have the time they need to have a whole life."

The high performers in your organization are typically very aware of your company’s overall health and position in the marketplace. Evidence suggests that confidence in the company’s directors is directly related to the engagement of that company’s high performers. With that being the case, it is of obvious value to communicate your company’s corporate strategy to your talented employees, whether via email, in meetings, or in more collegial and interactive formats.

Don’t Subject Talent to Bureaucracy

Nobody likes dealing with corporate bureaucracy—that goes without saying. Your top talent likes it even less. Dealing with bureaucracy is basically being told what to do without being told why. It substitutes intelligent thought with unthinking process.

As your top talent probably consists of creative, intelligent, thinking people, dealing with bureaucracy is the antithesis of what you (and they) should be doing. Subjecting them to bureaucracy is a quick and easy way to shut off engagement and chase them out the door.

Do Find Projects That Are Engaging

Most companies rarely have discussions with their employees regarding what they (the employee) would find engaging and what sorts of projects they would rather be doing. However, if you want to keep your top talent, this is a conversation you need to be having with them.

In the past, just having a steady, reliable job has been enough to keep most people around as long as you wished. However, that’s no longer the case—Generation X’s top employees are frequently looking for an exciting, engaging experience, but quickly grow tired of monotony and low-risk situations. Being stuck on a project that you find tedious and boring is no fun, and it can easily drive off the talent you’ve been working so hard to keep.

Do Keep Them on Those Projects

The temptation to shift talent to the newest, most exciting projects is strong. Resist it. People enjoy stability and the feeling they get when completing a project. Instability and leaving projects half-finished is something that will discourage your top talent and send them in search of more stable opportunities.

Do Have a Great Performance Review Program

Performance reviews are a painful waste of time that should be conducted as quickly as possible with as little depth as you can get away with. That’s how too many companies conduct them, anyway. They have forgotten what a review is for and why they are important—they are not just a chance to critique each employee.

This is a perfect time to have important long-term career discussions. Not having productive performance reviews is damaging, as unproductive reviews shouts to your top talent that your organization isn’t the least bit interested in their long-term career goals or their personal and professional development.

Do Discuss Career Development

Not many people can give more than a vague answer when asked what their long-term (five years and beyond) career goals are. But most people enjoy talking about it and planning for it.

All your employees are more than happy to talk to you about career goals, and none more so than your top talent. If nothing else, it shows your top talent that you are interested in their career development and their professional future, and that makes it more likely that they will stay.

Do Keep Top Talent around Each Other

As the old saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together,” and it holds true for talented and driven people. Top talent generally likes to be in the company of other top talent. They can relate to each other’s drive, ambition, and intelligence. Surrounding top talent with more lackluster employees will either pull their performance down (top talent rarely, if ever, boosts the performance of the others around whom they are surrounded) or drive them off altogether.

Do Listen to and Consider Viewpoints

Everyone likes to be heard, including your top talent. It’s possible that they have opinions and ideas that run counter to your company’s direction. It’s important to remain open minded, or at least receptive to different ideas. It’s also important to reject the notion that ideas that are contrary to the company line makes the holder of those ideas “not a team player.” Failure to listen to your top talent, or worse, saddling them with the “not a team player” label, is a very effective way to chase them off.

Do Remember Talent is not Leadership

According to management guru Henry Mintsberg:

"You can teach all sorts of things that improve the practice of management with people who are managers. What you cannot do is teach management to somebody who is not a manager, the way you cannot teach surgery to somebody who is not a surgeon."

One of the assumptions upon which a great deal of personnel moves are made is that if one is particularly talented at his job, he is also capable of managing people who are doing that same job.

Leadership and management skills are learned and are rarely innate, and there are plenty of people in the workforce (and in your organization) who just aren’t good at management and never will be.

Don’t make the mistake of promoting top talent into management if they aren’t interested in it or aren’t capable of doing it. Not only do you run the risk of alienating your top talent, you are also risking losing the people who are managed by that mismatched but talented employee.

Do Manage Energy, Not Time

Which is more important: having a talented, creative employee that contributes to moving the company forward, or having an employee that shows up at eight and leaves at five? A company that has any desire to be successful will choose the talented employee over the one that is only punctual.

Understand how to manage energy, not time. Realize that the quality and quantity of an employee’s contributions are far more important than merely being present a certain number of hours each day. This is not to say to let top talent ride roughshod over the attendance policy, but be sure not to lose sight of the big picture over something that is small and ultimately meaningless.

Do Build Trust Among Top Talent

“Trust is the glue of life,” said Stephen Covey. “It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication.” Relationships of trust are important between top talent and management. Also, trust among your top talent is as important, if not more so. Trust among the players is vital in any team function—a soldier who trusts his commanding officers completely but doesn’t trust the rest of his squad mates will be ineffective in any task entrusted to him.

Your corporation may not be going to war, but the team dynamic still holds true—trust between and among top talent is a requirement if your team is to be successful.