Talent management: keeping hold of your talent

by 04 Mar 2008

How can you tell when your top talent is about to leave? Three business psychologists from the UK offer their insights and tips on how to spot the warning signs

David Cumberbatch, business psychologist, Xancam

Is it possible to know when your most talented staff are thinking about the exit door? What should you do to anticipate and head off as many of those dreaded “it’s just not working for me” conversations as possible?

The long-term success of an organisation lies in securing a supply of people who can take on the critical leadership roles in the future. HR and talent professionals should therefore target their talent strategy at individuals with the potential to meet the demands of those roles.

These high potentials are the stars who, all being well, should be ready to sparkle in your organisation when the organisation needs them in years to come. The key to ensuring that they will stick around lies in understanding the way they think and act.

First, employers need to get inside the minds of high potentials they really do think and approach the world differently to the majority. In their everyday work, they are using high levels of emotional agility and a prodigious ability to learn. They handle complex situations, difficult concepts and ambiguous situations with ease and, in their long-term thinking, high potentials are highly strategic, not least when it comes to their own careers. Then add to this mix all the different values, expectations and attitudes that are expected as generation Y raises its head in this group. But if you work harder to find ways to think as they think, then you will know where trouble could be brewing.

High potentials also act differently: they have very different requirements when it comes to their development they are very easily bored and need to be challenged they need not only a fast pace of work but also a variety of tasks and they show a vacuum-like appetite for learning and are incredibly resourceful when solving problems.

As an employer, you need to be as restless as they are when helping them develop their careers. Thinking as broadly as they do, can you recognise that you might need to give them up to another part of the organisation? Can you encourage the line managers in your organisation to behave in the same way?

Finally, high potentials are not superhuman. They are rarely good at everything – far from it. Along with the peaks in their capabilities, some aspects of their performance may be weaknesses that are not acceptable and will need correcting if the high potential is to progress.

What marks them out, however, is that they will never forgive you for a lack of open and honest diagnosis, backed by tailor-made development to help them to turn any weakness into a strength and to allow them to show you what they can do.

Ultimately, the trouble with spotting when top talent is about to leave is that they may be too clever to show their hand once their mind is already made up. So it is far better for you to stop them ever reaching that stage. After all, retention is not something you do as such, rather it is an outcome of several things you do right.

So go and look at your talented team and remember that rather than second guessing their intentions, it is far better to work as hard as you can with your top talent to ensure you never have to guess at all.

Phil Smith, business psychologist, YSC

Really capable people are not reckless or casual about changing employers. They want to work in places where they are challenged and stimulated, where they can improve themselves, and where they are recognised and appreciated for their contribution. They leave because they are de-motivated, not because they are incapable.

Signs and signals are numerous and run the scale from the loss of outright enthusiasm, through disappointment, to disgust and active hostility.

However, talented people care about their reputations and they will not want to burn their bridges, hence most of the following are sins of omission rather than commission. The specific symptoms differ depending on individual make-up, but here is a list of some of the most common:

• Loss of enthusiasm – usually a noticeable decline in zeal and unsolicited support for the organisation’s mission and vision.

• Reduced visibility or a subtle withdrawal of discretionary contribution – changed behaviour stemming from loss of interest in their public profile in the organisation less inclination to contribute above and beyond the call of duty.

• Increase in excuses – for example, “too busy” to take on new things.

• Commiseration with the workplace cynics – subtle or vocal sympathy with humorous swipes at the employer’s values and key initiatives.

• Unexplained lapses/absences – people being hard to track down or cagey about their commitments and diaries without actually breaking any rules.

• Under-utilised PA/secretarial support – a signal that the disgruntled employee is reducing commitment and unplugging themselves from the organisational support system.

• Loss of urgency and drive, and procrastination – as people’s emotional energy becomes invested in seeking alternatives to the present situation.

• Unguarded candour with superiors – as the need to tell it like it is dominates the instinct for self-preservation.

• Procrastination – putting things off, especially those that entail renewed or extended commitments.

No single sign is uniquely diagnostic and they can all have other causes, but you should worry if you see several together.

People who are really thinking of leaving will tend to ‘keep their powder dry’and not give much away until they have a firm alternative, by which time it is usually too late to do anything. In most cases, if someone has gone this far, it means they have concluded that their core values cannot be met by the current employer.

There is little point in trying to keep someone who feels this way unless you can address their fundamental issues in a meaningful and sustainable way. If you cannot, there is a risk that they will stay, but become even more cynical and, eventually, actively hostile.

As with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Make sure you know people well enough to know what really matters to them and that you conscientiously solicit their views about issues that could affect their engagement.

If someone has lost the faith and you cannot win it back, you need to make sure they leave well, knowing that you still value them. If they are as talented as you think, what they say about you when they are no longer there still matters.

Stuart Duff, consultant, Pearn Kandola

A clear picture emerges from research into employee engagement, emphasising that talented employees leave their organisation because of their direct manager, ahead of any other factor including reward and salary.

In many ways, that’s almost inevitable. It is, after all, the line manager who has the most direct influence on the immediate wellbeing of employees.

But even for line managers, it will often be too late to spot any signs of leaving, because most employees will be smart enough to arrange their getaway well in advance of anyone else seeing the signs.

Here are the top five factors that you should regularly keep an eye on when evaluating the engagement of your most talented employees.

• Are you providing varied and innovative opportunities for your future chief executive to demonstrate what sets them apart from their closest colleagues? Are you challenging talented employees and creating progressive, stretching opportunities across the organisation, without them burning themselves out?

• Are there plenty of open opportunities to stretch employees? Or is there a series of positions that will only become vacant through retirements elsewhere?

• Are you making the most of the uniqueness of their personality, rather than squeezing them into an ‘all-rounder’ box? Have you helped your talented employees to realise what it is that makes them different and to recognise how to capitalise on the ‘spikes’ in their personal style?

• Are you involving your talented employees in shaping the future of the organisation? Are there opportunities to influence decisions and shape the future of the place they want to work? More importantly, do you act on what they tell you or do you smile, nod and then do nothing?

• Are you telling your talent that they are talented – in a meaningful, structured and manageable way? Or are you relying on someone, somewhere, to ‘give them the nod’ and expecting that to be enough?

Each of these factors can and should be regularly addressed by a skilled line manager.

It’s a fact of life that organisations will lose good people they would rather keep because of factors that are beyond their everyday control – including brand appeal, market standing, competitive remuneration and opportunities for more rapid progression elsewhere. But regularly checking with managers and their reports against these factors could slow the rate of turnover.

Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine. www.personneltoday.com