4 Reasons High-Performers Leave – and How to Stop the Cycle

Attracting and retaining high-performing employees is an issue that almost every company grapples with today. In fact, nearly 90% of companies surveyed by Deloitte Consulting consider employee engagement and culture as one of their top challenges.

So why are we inadvertently running off our high-performing employees?

Usually it’s because we don’t understand what they need.

The problem

Your high-performers make your life easier. So much easier, in fact, that it can be easy to forget they’re there and just let them do what they do. But leaving well enough alone isn’t the answer.

Because they’re already engaged and they’ve already done the heavy lifting, we often assume they are solidly on board.

But you might be surprised to find that many of them are intending to leave; as a matter of fact, one in two note they are currently looking for another opportunity. And we don’t have to tell you that losing your A players is a surefire way to kill your division’s performance.

Here are four little-known secrets to what makes high-performing employees tick that will help you keep them in your fold.

  1. They want accountability for everyone.

Quick: Who gets most of your attention? Chances are good you’re devoting the bulk of your time to your C players — giving them easier assignments so they will see success and offering extra training and one-on-one time.

Then the harder assignments are doled out to the A and B players because they can “handle it;” but it’s not long before the A player sees the dichotomy in how hard they are working and how the C player seems to be skating.

Most of us have had the experience of watching our manager dote on the dolt, and it breeds resentment when low performers aren’t held accountable – and maybe even seem to be rewarded. Ultimately, that resentment harms the A players’ own performance.

How to fix it:

You could try ensuring that you are giving equal time and attention across the board, but honestly there’s a better solution. You really should help the C player find success elsewhere. Because if you don’t help them move on, your A players will move on instead. Don’t let your Cs kill your As.

  1. We assume that because they’re A players, they don’t need our time and attention.

Years ago I heard a statistic that more than three-quarters of A players leave because they don’t get enough time and attention from their boss.

But take note: We’re not talking about the same type of time that you’re giving your C players. What your A players crave is development opportunities — being constantly challenged with new projects, skill building and the internal and external interactions that continue to grow and develop their careers.

How to fix it:

Make time to provide coaching, mentorship and development, or they will seek it elsewhere. Put A players in a position to have face time with senior leaders and offer projects that will stretch them.  You need to constantly push A players because they are motivated by challenges and skill building, so find ways to let them shine.

  1. They value performance over the past.

What this means is that they don’t care how things were done before; they care how things should be done now. Instead of asking “Why?,” they are going to ask “Why not?”

If you are overly focused on rules and reporting, you’re going to lose those A players who bring flair and creativity to getting the job done. They are looking for ways to innovate, and yet many companies are set up to value compliance more than results.

I do an exercise in my workshops called “Your Best Leader” and invariably every session — regardless of the level or company – someone says “Trust your As,” because they thrive on that accountability.

How to fix it:

Hand them the wheel. Your high-performing employees are comfortable failing a bit, but you have to let them run with it. They value your trust over everything else, so resist the urge to micromanage and let them focus on the outcome.

They might do something differently than you would but I look at it like relying on my navigation app. I might be planning to get on a busy freeway, but my app often carefully guides me on a circuitous route–safely of course–and when I arrive I’m like, “Wow! That was a crazy journey but I avoided all the traffic and got here faster than expected.”  When you let your A players drive, you might get the same result.

And even if you aren’t able to ultimately implement their ideas, hearing them and giving them credit for thinking them up is equally important.

  1. They are motivated by recognition.

Aren’t we all? Yes, but superstar employees really like the accolades. In fact, they often migrate to careers that seek performance metrics, like sales.

Recognition doesn’t have to look like public praise though. It could be acknowledging their efforts by giving them plum projects and stretch assignments that will allow them to continue to develop their skills. Or a hand-written note or email from your boss thanking them for their work: They want to know that those higher-up have noticed their efforts. Or lunch with you. Or attending a strategy meeting with a senior leader to give them more insight into the business.

How to fix it:

Recognition should be a mix of components such as title, compensation and rewarding them with opportunities outside of their day-to-day work to build networks and skills.

To retain those A players, you want to get them hooked on you.

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