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Sales Leadership
Retaining and Engaging Top Talent in Turbulent Times
Aug 1, 2009 | David Neilly lock

During an economic downturn or period of uncertainty, our attention as business leaders turns to protecting revenue, divesting unprofitable businesses and trimming costs. This increased focus on business efficiency is both natural and appropriate. However, these turbulent times can erode employee trust in the organization and increase insecurity, leading to reduced commitment, effort
and performance. At that point in the business cycle when you need employees to be flexible, adaptable and fully committed, you run the risk of creating the opposite reaction from employees.

So what happens to employees in times of uncertainty, why does this matter to you, and how can you minimize the risk of disengagement and productivity loss of your top performers?

It is important to start with an understanding of “employee engagement” and its affect on performance. Engaged employees are enthusiastic about and highly committed to their jobs and
their organizations. They take ownership for and pride in the quality of their work, are more likely to give you extra effort, and bring an infectious, “can do” attitude to the workplace. Engaged
employees persist at difficult tasks and constantly look for ways to improve quality and productivity. Engagement is the state of mind that leads to maximum performance!

During periods of economic uncertainty, there are many signals in the media and the workplace that challenge an employee’s trust in their employer and heighten fears. Will our company be in
business a year from now? Are there merger/acquisition rumours? Will we need to downsize our business and workforce? Is my pension plan secure? Should I expect a bonus for the next couple
of years?

Top Talent Is Always In Demand!

You might be tempted to believe that your employees are at low risk of leaving during an economic downturn and that they will feel lucky to have a job. This might be true for your weaker performers or those whose skills are not easily transferrable. However, your top performers are always in demand. They are well known to the recruiters in your industry and probably receive regular calls regarding career opportunities elsewhere.

Assessing Flight Risk for Mission Critical Employees

The risk of any employee leaving is a function of many factors, and requires an awareness of the employee’s personal makeup, marketability and current level of employment satisfaction.
Following are suggested steps to evaluate the flight risk of your critical contributors:

Step 1- Identify your mission critical employees
Mission critical employees are those whose departure would result in a significant loss of technical/process knowledge, customer relationships or management/leadership capacity. Their
loss would be difficult for the organization to replace in the near term and would cause noticeable damage to the organization. Depending on the nature of your business, your mission critical
employee list would total between 5-15% of your workforce.

Step 2- Evaluate the “flight potential” of your mission critical employees
“Flight potential” is a measure of the willingness and ease with which an employee could leave if unhappy with his/her current employment. High flight potential would be characterized by the
degree to which the employee has shown the following traits:

• Ambitious- always on the look-out for more responsibility/status/money
• Mobile- has shown willingness to change jobs in the past
• Unsettled- has not yet “bonded” with the current organization, team, management and colleagues
• In Demand- possesses skills and knowledge that are in demand and easily transferrable to   another employer

If an employee demonstrates several of these traits, then his/her potential to seek “greener pastures” is high.

Step 3- Evaluate the degree of “employment frustration” of your mission critical employees
“Employment frustration” is a measure of serious or chronic problems the employee is experiencing in the workplace. Review your list of mission critical employees and determine if they might be experiencing any of the following sources of frustration.

• Under-challenged- has been doing the same job for more than two years, or has been voicing a desire for a new challenge
• Underpaid- has been paid conservatively based on level of responsibility and performance, or has voiced concerns about pay
• Strained Relationships- has stressful relationships with colleagues or boss which has  created conflict and tension
• Under-recognized- has received little recognition, perhaps taken for granted

• Overworked- has been working long hours for a long period of time, or has been complaining about work-life balance
• Lack of Career Progression- has not progressed for a period of time and has started to complain about current career level

If an employee demonstrates several of these traits, or even one of them at a high level, then he/she is probably at risk of being disengaged. Coming to work in this state feels more like an
obligation or financial necessity and less like a place to learn, be challenged and feel good.

Step 4- Combine flight potential and employment frustration to determine flight risk

Table 1 shows the resulting combination of flight potential and employment frustration.

Employees who tend to seek long-term relationships with their employers and who are satisfied with their employment have the lowest risk of leaving. We will call these “happy stayers”. These
employees are probably highly engaged and giving 100% of themselves.

Employees who are ambitious, marketable and have shown a tendency to change employers, combined with an unhappy employment experience, present the highest risk of leaving. We will call this group “unhappy leavers”. These employees will not endure frustration for very long before starting to look elsewhere.

Employees who have low flight potential, but who are dissatisfied with their employment will not be inclined to leave and will “suffer in silence” for a long time before leaving. These are the “unhappy stayers”, probably disengaged and giving less than 100% commitment and effort.

Finally, there is the paradox of the “happy leaver”, the employees who are highly engaged, committed and productive, yet still might leave you for a better opportunity. So, even though you
are doing all the right things to engage your happy leaver, there is never a guarantee that he or she will decide to stay with you. They are forever on the lookout for something better due to their
ambition and marketability.

You cannot control the flight potential of your mission critical employees- this is part of their personal makeup and probably one of the key reasons they are so valuable to you. However, you can have a great deal of impact on employment satisfaction and engagement through your management and workplace practices. Listed below are key actions you can take that will directly
address the most common causes of employment frustration and disengagement:

1. Spend management time identifying employees who are mission critical and measuring their flight risk.
2. Take a personal interest in your top talent and find out what motivates them and what they are looking for in their careers.
3. Develop specific action plans tailored for each mission critical employee related to career
   development, learning investments, compensation, succession planning, work assignments and recognition.
4. Keep your employees challenged and stimulated with new assignments and situations.
5. Provide plenty of feedback. High performing employees make plenty of mistakes and are grateful for coaching that helps them learn how to perform at higher levels.
6. Make sure you are paying your mission critical employees competitively.
7. You probably lean on your high performing employees to take on the most difficult and important assignments. Monitor their workload and make sure that they do not “burn out”.
8. Measure your workplace through an employee engagement survey at least once every two years, and take action with the results to improve your workplace.
9. Maintain a frequent and honest communication flow with your employees, especially in    turbulent economic times. Employees will appreciate being told about developments in the    business and the marketplace, as well as the opportunity to ask questions.

As you navigate the troubled waters of the economy over the next several months, your efforts to identify mission critical talent, assess flight risk and create an engaging workplace will increase
your business performance, decrease your attrition of top talent and increase your reputation as an employer. Your employees will thank you and so will your shareholders!

About the Author:

David Neilly is the Managing Director of PeopleCOMP Inc, a human resources consulting firm specializing in increasing engagement and designing performance-based compensation programs.

©David Neilly, 2009. Reproduced with permission.

About the author: 392

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