8 effective strategies for retaining skilled key staff

Nick Stanley
By Nick Stanley

The success of your business relies on the skill of your people.

Your top performers are the ones who make your company hum. Not only are they exceptionally capable and productive, they develop in-depth knowledge of your business, can develop new ideas and solutions, and serve as examples to other employees.

They are the people who you could find very hard to replace if they leave (if you can replace them at all). So it makes sense to retain your good staff and develop a stable, loyal workforce.

Once you have understood some of the main reasons why talented employees leave, the next thing to do is develop strategies to keep your top performers and make your company a place where people really want to work.

1. Be proactive

The 2019 Global Salary Survey by specialist recruitment agency Robert Walters showed that 38% of Australian professionals would look at moving jobs during the year.

No one wants to be turning over staff at that rate, but many companies overlook the need to have a long-term strategy for retaining skilled people.

Design a employee retention program to give your top people reasons to stick with you. Don’t wait until you feel an employee is going to leave – or worse, you’re sitting in the exit interview – and try to convince them to stay or match another job offer.

Ensure you understand and can meet their needs, whether it be better pay, career development, more benefits, or improved work-life balance.

Not only will your skilled workers be around to help the company succeed, they’ll be able to pass on their knowledge and abilities so you’ll be better covered if you ever need to replace them.

2. Hire the right people

Employee retention starts right at the beginning of the employment process. It sounds obvious, but there are many things to think about before you even schedule an interview.

Identify the sorts of skills, backgrounds, or personality traits your top employees have in common. Understand your company culture and pinpoint the aspects of it that are particularly relevant to the job.

When you start screening candidates, look at how candidates fit with the company and the existing team, and whether they have the skills to assist your business with its goals.

Look for those with longevity at previous jobs, especially if the company went through difficult times, or a person who plays team sports or volunteers.

People who show commitment, are self-motivated and interested in developing their skills and careers will be more loyal than those motivated by money and power.

Then, when you are ready to make a job offer, establish clear expectations so you can avoid misunderstandings or disappointments down the track.

3. Offer career paths and professional development

Plan for the long-term. While top talent may naturally exceed in their roles, there’s no guarantee they will want to stay there forever.

You need to understand how these key staff see their career progressing. Identify their career goals, then work with them on a plan to attain them and grow with the company.

Promote from within as often as possible and provide equal opportunities. This sends a clear message that you are committed to developing future leaders based on merit, and you want your employees to drive the company's success and share in it.

Learning should be another core focus. Employees will feel valued and more invested in the business if you offer paths for training and the acquisition of new skills, processes, and technologies.

This doesn’t only mean attending formal training courses and gaining qualifications; encourage employees to learn by doing, on each project and every task. Give them the freedom to not get it right the first time, and then share those learnings with the wider team.

Your high achievers can end up being your best workplace trainers.

4. Make it personal

We all have different motivations, so tailor your staff retention strategies to individual employees.

Find out what fires your skilled staff up. Financial incentives might not be as high on the list as you think.

Instead, your top performers may care more about being challenged by their work, learning and growing, or having more workplace flexibility.

Understanding the needs of your employees and customising each person’s benefits package and working conditions will definitely take some work on management’s part. But the time and effort will help your people feel truly valued, boosting employee satisfaction and, ultimately, loyalty.

5. Keep communication open

More than ever, employees want a company culture of openness and transparency. They want to know how the company is doing, what it values, where it is going, and how their efforts fit into that plan.

If your workplace has an open environment where management shares information and employees feel free to speak their minds, you will foster a sense of shared purpose, and you can expect it to be easier to retain skilled staff.

Make communication regular and ongoing, both formally and informally. Give performance feedback, hold meetings so people can offer ideas and ask questions, and encourage individuals and teams to share information.

Occasionally, it may help to bring in an impartial third party for staff to talk to so you can get a gauge of how they really feel.

Make sure everyone in the business is committed to open communication. Invest in training and development for management to cultivate their interpersonal skills.

Listening to your employees and acting on what they say will help them feel valued.

6. Make work meaningful

Rather than reactively managing your people’s performance, concentrate on finding ways to keep the work they do meaningful and challenging.

More than most, your high achievers will want to use and extend their skills, so encourage them to take the initiative, remove barriers to getting work done, and offer job flexibility as much as possible.

Keep reviewing and adjusting roles to fit strengths and talents. As part of your ongoing communication, ask people why they work for you and what you can do to make things better. Try to keep it positive and focussed on aspects of the job that can be improved.

Listen closely to what your top employees say; you’ll get many good ideas, not only for improving work conditions, but other areas of your business as well. You’ll also get a better understanding of why people might be attracted to your company, which will help with recruitment.

As always, keep any promises you make.

7. Evaluate performance

Knowing exactly how people are going in relation to expectations will benefit everyone in the business, not only management.

Employees want and expect feedback. Work with them to agree on a set of clear, measurable expectations that you can then track.

Build in regular feedback and support as an ongoing process that supplements more formal, yearly performance reviews.

If performance issues come to light, work together on solutions.

Also check overall employee satisfaction, so you and your employees can identify any obstacles and challenges within the company. Ask about compensation and benefits, how people feel about management, and whether you are offering them the sort of work and training opportunities they expect.

Understanding and measuring performance and satisfaction – and then acting upon it – will support your ongoing retention efforts. You’ll be more likely to keep highly-productive members of your team, and get the chance to solve any issues before you lose others.

Find out more about the importance of performance reviews.

8. Reward success, understand failure

With the results of performance evaluation, you’re in a position to recognize and reward excellence.

Again, you should be built in to the company culture, not only as part of your formal performance reviews, but also more casual acts of appreciation, such as lunches out or simple workplace congratulations.

Look at ways to offer rewards for employees who stay with you for a predetermined period or exceed their performance goals.

Your high achievers might not be the only ones who go above and beyond, and if you reward every good example, you'll create a culture where everyone wants to be one.

Of course, the flipside to achievement and success is under-performance and failure. You should expect this; it happens in all workplaces, even to the strongest performers.

Instead of punishing poor performance, use it to get to the heart of issues and learn lessons from them.

Your skilled people may be overworked or have been promoted into a role they weren’t ready for. Personal issues may be affecting their ability to focus on work.

Offer support and flexibility, as good people will want to stay with a company that takes the time and effort to understand and solve problems.

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