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How To Manage And Retain High Performing Employees

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

As a leader, your success and your ability to scale and increase your value to your organization depends on building a high-performing team, including developing the bench of leaders and potential leaders who report to you. To do this, you need to identify, hire, grow, and retain high-performing managers on your team. Because top talent usually has options, you will need to up your own game to keep them engaged and productive by building trust, providing guidance and context, and identifying opportunities. Here are some key practices and some pitfalls to avoid.

  1. Establish trust. A trusting relationship is the foundation of all your management practices. If your strong performers trust you, they will share their aspirations and challenges with you, and they will be more open to your influence and guidance. Create a personal connection—listen and demonstrate interest in your direct reports as professionals and as people and share your own thoughts, perspectives and feelings as well as organizational context and rationales, and let them know that you have their back and they can count on you to deliver on your commitments. This foundation of trust is key to, and will be reinforced by, the following supportive practices.
  2. Engage in ongoing career development conversations. The best way to motivate your high performer is to know their goals and interests so that you can provide appropriate opportunities and support their intentional career growth. Help them understand what is possible, within your team and the broader organization, but also in the larger market, and encourage them to build the skills, experiences, and relationships that will advance them. According to one CHRO at a growing tech company, “Your top performers should have no doubt that you are committed to their success and career growth.” In your career conversations, it is also key to understand their values—what is important to them. Ongoing motivation is generally tied to pursuing core values like impact, learning, achievement, and collaboration.
  3. Empower and provide autonomy. Star performers generally possess both the skill and the will to achieve results. Although you may have difficulty relinquishing control, as their manager, you can demonstrate trust and confidence by delegating responsibility and authority for tasks where their talents will be stretched. Take care not to micromanage, and give your high performer discretion to determine “how,” and to create a plan and deliver. Engage them in identifying what they would like to work on, but don’t neglect the aspirations of other members of the team. “Playing favorites” will undermine the overall culture of the team. Also beware overloading them; they may be inclined to say yes to everything, which may lead to burnout.
  4. Balance autonomy with guidance and support. It’s possible to take autonomy too far. Just because someone is capable does not mean that you can just turn them loose and ignore them. Be sure to provide adequate context and high-level guidance so that your high performer has a clear understanding of expectations and success metrics. Maintain regular check-ins for accountability as well as to make sure that they have the resources they need and to unblock them as necessary. Periodically, re-calibrate with your star by asking, “Am I providing the right balance of guidance, support, and autonomy for you?”
  5. Acknowledge and appreciate. Some high performers, especially anxious overachievers, crave recognition and appreciation, which is a relatively low-cost lever you can pull to support retention. Whether or not your employee feels the need for appreciation, don’t neglect this important form of guidance that reinforces positive behaviors and helps build a reservoir of positivity to draw on when you need to give corrective feedback. The more targeted the acknowledgment, the better. While a “Great job!” is nice, the lack of specificity can make it ring hollow. Instead, name the behavior or quality and its impact, such as, “Your recommendations were very persuasive because they were well-supported by the data.”
  6. Give developmental feedback. Being committed to the development of your high performers requires that you balance your appreciation with direct, actionable, constructive feedback. In my experience, many high performers crave constructive feedback as much as or more than they desire praise. That said, just because someone is high performing doesn’t mean that they might not get defensive, so take care to express your developmental feedback in the context their stated aspirations and strengths without sugarcoating it. Again, be specific in naming the impact of their behavior and offering actionable steps for improvement. Note that you may occasionally need to rein them in if they overestimate their own skills or capacity. Be sure to help them calibrate their expectations and lay out a path to growth.
  7. Share organizational context. A good manager brings their team along, shares organizational context, vision and strategy, and solicits input where possible. Providing as much transparency about the decisions and trade-offs at the leadership level helps ensure alignment and supports motivation. As you mentor your high performers, be sure to engage them in discussions of company strategy, including discussing relevant uncertainties, and encourage them to develop their own point of view. Inviting your direct report into your confidence and thought partnering with them is a powerful signal of trust and can help you both up-level your strategic thinking. At the same time, beware the potential to overshare; resist the urge to complain or bad-mouth leadership. Your team looks to you for stability and support; do not inadvertently overburden them or undermine their confidence in you or organizational leadership.
  8. Provide visibility and facilitate relationships. Make sure that your strong performers are recognized in your organization. Give them opportunities to present to company leaders and executives or to other teams within the organization, and set them up for success by offering guidance as to the objectives of the presentation and appropriate level of detail for the audience so that they can develop their “executive presence.” Delegate leadership of higher visibility initiatives and cross-functional projects that will give them exposure to other parts of the organization. Encourage them to build relationships with their peers and cross-functional stakeholders so that they can increase their understanding and build their influence within the organization.
  9. Manage your insecurities. Empowering your lieutenants may trigger feelings of discomfort. You may feel guilty about asking someone else to do work that you could do. You may worry that they will fail and you will look bad. Or you may worry that they will succeed and outshine or replace you in the eyes of your boss or others in the organization. You may even have difficulty letting go of the areas in which you feel confident and stepping into a more strategic role where your output and success are more of a stretch and where your success is uncertain. This range of emotions is a normal part of your own leadership journey as you adjust to an expanded role and new source of value and contribution. Get curious about your blockers and set your own development goals around increasing your comfort with delegation and letting go.

The majority of these strategies apply to all employees, not just your top performers. Leveling up all your employees will help elevate your own performance and the success of the organization.