The Art of High-Performer Employee Maintenance

As Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better.” Though his multiple may be a little exaggerated, his point is spot on.

According to a survey of corporate officers by consulting firm McKinsey & Co., the top 10 percent of a peer group deliver between 40 percent (for operational roles) and 67 percent (for sales roles) more than the average employee. In addition, a 2012 study that appeared in Personnel Psychology of more than 633,000 individuals in various industries found that the top 5 percent produce 26 percent of a company’s total output.

And when it comes to recruiting new talent, a 2013 study from the University of California at Berkeley found that top performers’ referrals were 90 percent more profitable than those of average employees and three times as profitable as referrals from below-average performers.

To put it simply, smart people want to work with other smart people, so companies that retain their talent are poised to see the rewards multiply.

But keeping talent is tricky, and the upward swing in the economy is likely to make things even more challenging.

At the end of 2013, the U.S. unemployment rate dipped below 7 percent for the first time since 2008 — a trend historically mirrored by rising voluntary turnover. Moreover, the U.S. economy is estimated to grow by 3 percent in 2014, suggesting recruiters are picking up the phones once again.

At a time like this, high flyers can afford to be picky — and they usually are, and many top performers have been champing at the bit to leave.

While employee engagement dropped 9 percent between 2010 and 2011, for top performers it decreased by 25 percent, according to 2010 research from HR consultancy Towers Watson & Co. The research also found that 30 percent of top-performing employees were either uncertain about staying or seriously considering leaving their organizations.

In an upturning economy, top talent is the biggest flight risk, so it pays to keep them happy. But keeping them happy is about more than pay.

Published reports show that Google Inc. in 2011 gave all its employees a 10 percent raise after many top performers left for competitors or other companies. Unfortunately, it didn’t plug the gap; in 2013, Google’s employees were among the least loyal, according to data compiled by

If anything, the blanket increase may have heightened the problem. If everyone is rewarded the same, then top performers have two options: reduce their contribution because everyone else gets away with it or look for greater opportunities elsewhere.

In 2013, almost a quarter of the 121 organizations surveyed in a talent management rewards study by Towers Watson gave some form of bonus to their lowest-performing employees, while 18 percent offered a blanket payout regardless of performance.

This disconnect is one example of why employee loyalty may be falling among top performers. They work harder and achieve more, yet are treated the same when it comes to bonuses and compensation.

Traditional high-flyer programs don’t appear to offer an adequate solution. In a 2011 AMA Enterprise study, half of respondents rated their employer as “somewhat effective” in retaining high-potential employees. Additionally, a global study by researchers Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, Boris Groysberg and Nitin Nohria featured in an October 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review found that only 15 percent of organizations felt their talent pipeline had enough qualified successors.

Traditional high potential programs suffer from opaque, subjective selection criteria and tend to be shrouded in secrecy. Some organizations even fail to tell high performers about their high potential status, fearing inflated egos and demotivated masses. Moreover, old-school programs place the responsibility for engaging, developing and retaining talent in the hands of human resources and away from the individual’s direct manager.

A seminal study by Jean-Marie Hiltrop, professor of international human resources management and organizational behavior at the TiasNimbas Business School at Tilburg University, surveyed human resources managers of 319 multinational companies about their talent management practices. In the study, independent consultants scored each company’s talent attraction and retention effectiveness as high, medium or low.

The 69 companies ranked “high” scored significantly above the others on five factors: career development, autonomy, openness, teamwork and training. This finding suggests these are the five important levers for motivating and retaining top talent, and that much of the responsibility for delivering them lies with managers.

Provide career development: High performers desire to excel, be promoted and earn more. “I am an achievement-oriented individual and I need to feel like I’m excelling, moving upwards and growing … moving sideways doesn’t do it for me,” said one employee surveyed in a 2007 Hewitt Associates Talent Pulse study.

Furthermore, top talent want to know what opportunities are available and what they must do to get there. If they can’t see an upward path, they’ll look elsewhere. Regular career development conversations — in which managers spell out what the future looks like in 12 to 24 months — help to diminish the lure of seeking a job elsewhere.

Managers also need freedom to bend the rules and give high performers the leg up they need, whether that’s allocating responsibilities above their pay grade or mixing things up so they can attend high-profile meetings. The technical term for this is job crafting. Companies that wish to keep their best people need to encourage — not penalize — such behavior.

Give autonomy: In a 2013 survey by human capital management company Ceridian HCM Inc., autonomy trumped salary as a main driver of motivation, topped only by interesting work. Most top performers choose to join organizations because they are awarded the room and space to work from their managers.

Indeed, Hewitt Associates’ survey found that “stimulating settings where they can think creatively and question the status quo” was a key talent motivator. Give high flyers a rule and they’ll break it. Give them enough rope and they’ll build you a ladder. It’s not a question of flex-time or relaxing the dress code. The biggest obstacle to autonomy is a boss with micro-management tendencies. Therefore, managers need to know how and when to loosen the reins or risk stifling talent altogether.

Be open: Openness is one of Facebook’s core values. “We work hard to make sure everyone at Facebook has access to as much information about the company as possible,” the company writes on its careers website. The organization has also appeared in the top five for employee satisfaction since 2009, according to company review website

High performers crave transparency to make informed decisions about their careers. According to the Ceridian survey, 31 percent of those who expect to receive a pay increase, promotion or bonus would start looking elsewhere if they didn’t receive it. This figure rises to almost half for Generation Y employees.

Allow for teamwork: Despite the desire to reach the top, high performers thrive in a team environment. A real team has common goals, meets regularly to review those goals and demonstrates how each member’s work contributes to them. Fail to fulfill these three criteria, and team members will be less happy and perform worse than those working alone.

This challenge is compounded by the idea that the very nature of talent management is detrimental to team cohesion. Top performers have more demanding goals than their lower-performing peers and, as a result, should be rewarded proportionately. Given the human tendency to emphasize our own inputs above the efforts of others, it is a perfect storm for resentment. Managers have a tough job to keep the peace and manage the team’s differences in a way that maximizes both teamwork and performance.

Use training: Given high performers’ desire to advance quickly, it is no wonder that the companies that retain top talent offer many learning opportunities. A pick-and-mix approach allows employees to craft a learning program specific to their interests and goals, while simultaneously tapping their desire for autonomy. The manager’s role is to help high flyers recognize available learning opportunities and secure the resources and time necessary for personal development among their everyday priorities.

But most bosses are not used to exploring their direct reports’ career hopes and dreams, preferring instead to focus on current performance. It’s not uncommon for senior management to resent “fast-track” programs; they believe talent should slog their way up the hard way as they did. Busy bosses may be reluctant to add career coaching to their ever-growing to-do list, while others shy away from developing high potentials for fear of being overtaken.

In the end, the companies that get talent management right don’t rely on extra training or special away days for the top 10 percent. Instead, they make talent management part of managers’ day jobs by equipping them with the skills that help top performers fly high.

And they don’t stop there. Organizations cannot risk developing the vital few at the expense of all others who also deserve to feel valued, challenged and in control of their development.
The answer is managers who help all employees see why the future is bright for them if they stay.

Sebastian Bailey is president of Mind Gym Inc., a performance management firm. He can be reached at