How to retain top employees

The curious case of employee retention ~ this is and always has been a corporate dilemma. While many corporates always have a number of plans in place for top employees, in the form of a retention bonus, hikes, incentives, extra bonus, promotion etc. ~ the statistics of large organizations say otherwise. No matter what the corporates do, the top performing employees are always the ones who quit and move on. I.e. the attrition is always with top performers.

Top performers are always motivated, they know they can do better, they have high ambitions, and they want to get everything quickly in their corporate career, or as it is said in corporate language, “climbing the corporate ladder” ~ so the amount of time they spend in an organization is limited, if they do not climb the ladder; they would like to get maximum learning out of the experience, contribute during that time as a top employee, and then when they find another opportunity they move on. So whether the organization likes it or not and no matter what they provide, top employees will continue to move on. The doles that are provided to them won’t work. It may for some time, but in long run, it just does not work.

Now, this begs the question: what does an organization do to retain top employees?  Well if we backtrack a bit, we will begin to notice that in large organizations everybody isn’t expected to be a top performer.  Metaphorically – In the army, you have a general, followed by ranked officers, and the remainder of the army comprises soldiers who follow the structure of what has to be done. Similarly, in large organizations, and depending on the niche of the business unit, one has to have a different strategy for employees.

A large organization does not need top performers to run the organization; they need average / above average performers who will stay with the organization for the long run. So the traditional retention techniques won’t work. Each manager needs to take a coaching approach here; that is to go with the outcome of the respective employee and see what they want from the organization. Even though some employees are smart, they don’t want to slog and work too hard. They may have other priorities in life: work-life balance, some personal challenges which may hamper them to go full throttle in their corporate careers, health issues that they or someone in their family is dealing with, and many other things ~ again subjective to each person.

In research and development, organizations can expect everybody to be a top talent, and there can be ways to retain them. More than money as a factor they would need research opportunities, flexibility, less interference in their work etc. In niche sectors like Security, Artificial Intelligence, Automation sectors, Business Analytics, where the resource pool is less, and opportunities more, you will need people with a lot more potential. If you are talking about traditional software development centres with developers/testers, you might want to bracket them as a skill set where you don’t need top talent from the industry, (considering large pool of resources are available) you might be happy to have people who have a history of longer stints in organizations, are content with the type of work, and have other agendas in life to focus on like: work life balance, decent pay etc.

While we are discussing this, the focus is back on the Resource Manager’s hands, i.e. back to the person who is leading the business unit, and the respective managers leading their teams. This would mean that a traditional approach of policy driven by HR or some other team won’t be applicable or apt here. More autonomy would be required in this case, where a Business Unit has more freedom to design approaches to manage attrition.

Managing top talent is not an issue with small consulting firms of big repute. There, the employee set is totally motivated, and with each level the perks and the things at stake are huge, so mostly employees are self-driven, especially those who want to make it big in the firms. The retention policy is somewhat a challenge in large organizations, especially those that have a centralized policy for all departments, which may work for some teams, but it may not work for teams which are working in niche areas, and resource crunch is huge.

So how to retain top employees ?:

1) Do an assessment in terms of the size of the business unit you are operating. If you would need a separate business unit to manage your own policies, then that might help to manage some of these challenges.

2) Have managers leading people to develop coaching skills. They need to maintain a regular dialogue with resources to have an outcome-based approach, and this will enable them to align the right resources with the right teams and manage retention to some extent.

3) Niche skills would require higher pay-outs and higher salaries. An archaic skill in a large organization cannot be equated with niche skills resources that are working on cutting-edge technologies, and are from exemplary education and research backgrounds.

4) Managers must provide flexibility in day to day management of resources.  Managers must have the flexibility to allow resources to work in a way which keeps them supercharged up to be a part of the team. Spontaneous decisions which suit the team must be built into the scenarios.

5) More team interactions, connected with common team goals help individuals to work towards something which they can connect with. Example: An employee who is aware that the work performed by him/her is towards a critical national grid infrastructure, and is going to help the country move forward in that space. Then probably that employee is going to be super motivated and charged towards the contribution that he/she is going to make.

Lastly, there is no thumb for how to retain top employees, it has to be a scenario-based approach, and it has to be Agile and Dynamic. Gone are those days where policies were used to manage people. We are in Gen Z, where expectations from life have changed, and continue to evolve.

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