How to Lose Your Best Talent

Greatest generation, baby boomers, Generation X, Generation Y (Millennials) and now Generation Z. Whilst I confess I’m not a huge fan of the generic terminology used for distinguishing between the different generations now vested in today’s job market, there’s no doubt that the research assessing what different groups of individuals now want from a fulfilling career is clearer than ever.

According to Personnel Today, about one-third of the current workforce is either Gen Y or millennial, but this is predicted to rise over the next decade to around the three-quarters mark. By 2025, companies of all shapes and sizes will be reliant on these groups to maintain productivity and competitive edge.

Recruiters, HR teams and management need to be constantly aware that much of the greatest upcoming talent has different needs and agendas from previous alphabet-defined generations. Failing to respond appropriately during the search process and post-engagement will ultimately lead to unhappiness and could see the most promising employees take flight.

Forbes contributor Alan Hall noted reasons for this Gen Y unhappiness is rarely tied to money or benefits; 31% of employees are unhappy because they lacked empowerment; 35% because of with internal politics and 43% feeling they do not receive proper recognition.

In short: employees really care about opportunities for personal development and professional growth. If top talent doesn’t find these things they become disengaged, and companies quickly lose them to employers who do offer these things.

Research of over 1,000 Gen Y employees showed that over half of them expect to have moved on from their current employer within just two years. The main reason for this being ‘unmet expectations’. So what really motivates and drives Gen Y? What is it they respond to?’

Harvard Business Review say most management teams stumble badly when they try to develop their next generation of leaders. Senior managers tend to make misguided assumptions about these employees and take actions on their behalf that actually hinder their development or even push them to leave. Here are a few examples of assumptions you might be making about your best talent, and examples as to why you’re making a huge mistake…

Assuming High Potentials Are Highly Engaged

It makes perfect sense that when faced with a group of bright, shiny individuals who have been recognised as top talent that you might assume that the assembled are particularly enthusiastic about your company.

But top talent is often quite the opposite, with research saying the ‘One in four intends to leave your employment within the year, one in three admits to not putting all his effort into their job and one in five believes their personal aspirations are quite different from what the organisation has planned. Four out of 10 also have little confidence in their coworkers and even less confidence in the senior team.

Why? Well it’s probably down to high expectations and numerous opportunities. Bright employees set a high bar for their employers, and because they work harder (and frequently better) than other employees, they expect to be treated well and rewarded with stimulating career paths, recognition and the chance to prosper. If your organisation is struggling, then your top talent will be the first to be disappointed! Want them to be highly engaged? You need to work for it!

Equating High Performance with Future Potential

It’s true that not many low performers have high potential. But it’s wrong to assume that most high performers automatically do.

Research shows that more than 70% of today’s top performers lack critical attributes essential to their success in future roles.

The three attributes required for top tier success have been identified as ability, engagement and aspiration. Harvard Business Review says ability is crucial to be successful in progressively more important roles, noting that employees must have the intellectual, technical, and emotional skills (both innate and learned) to handle increasingly complex challenges. Engagement is important to ensure the rising star has the level of personal connection and commitment toward your business. Aspiration is essential: the desire for recognition, advancement, and future rewards, and the degree to which the employee’s ‘wants’ aligns with what the company ‘wants’ for him or her can be extremely difficult to measure.

To understand this aspiration, employers are better off getting straight to the point, asking how far they hope to rise in the company? How quickly? How much recognition would be optimal? How much money? And so on.

Delegating Down the Management of Top Talent

If you REALLY want to keep top talent, higher management should take an interest in their career progression. Harvard Business Review explains, saying, “These (high–performing) employees are a long-term corporate asset and must be managed accordingly. When you leave the task of identifying and cultivating tomorrow’s leaders exclusively to line managers, candidates are selected solely on the basis of recent performance. They are offered narrow development opportunities that are limited by the business units’ scope of requirements and focus mostly on skills required now rather than tomorrow.”

You can introduce a leadership programme (however traditional or innovative suits your culture) or you can adopt the ‘Tour of Duty’ approached advocated by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh in their book, The Alliance: Managing Talent in a Networked Age. It extols the virtues of internal (and external) opportunities, as well as trust and mutual value creation.

Shielding Rising Stars from Early Derailment

Businesses are often guilty of shielding those who they think are ‘top talent’ by not fully challenging them where they feel they might fail. A counter productive move, without exposure to the toughest challenges and tests of personality under pressure, talent will never have the experience needed to rise right to the top. Challenge, inspire and provide ongoing coaching and mentoring – turning perceived failures or downfalls into positive learning experiences.

True leadership development takes place under conditions of real stress – the experience within the experience.

Failing to Link Your Stars to Your Corporate Strategy

Senior executives need to reinforce that the ‘high potential’ designation is not primarily an acknowledgment of past accomplishment but an assessment of future contribution, said Recruiter in an article on developing the best employees. Talent-management initiatives must challenge and cultivate rising stars, not just celebrate today’s high achievements.

The next society will be a knowledge society. Knowledge will be its key resource, and knowledge workers will be the dominant group in its workforce. When burgeoning talent is misidentified, unchallenged, or unrewarded, these individuals become a drag on overall performance. Even worse, their disengagement and eventual derailment can lead to depleted leadership ranks and damage employee commitment and retention across the firm.

How far would you go to keep the very best talent?

Mark Gardiner
About the author: 

Mark Gardiner is the Managing Director at Charles Warwick Search & Selection, a multi-disciplinary search firm covering senior management to Board-level searches in the UK. Prior to his current role, Mark was a Director at Star Books in Leeds, UK. Follow him on Twitter.