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Losing top talent costly, but not fatal

My favourite sports team lost a key player – but I'm not panicked. It happens all the time in HR

Bear with me for a minute. It may sound like I’m about to write a sports column, but I’m not. I need to talk about the Detroit Lions, a football team I’ve followed closely since I was able to walk (I can thank my dad for that curse).

If you know anything about the NFL, you’ll know the Lions don’t exactly have a winning tradition. They are one of four teams to have never appeared in the Super Bowl, despite the fact they are one of the oldest franchises in the league. They are the only team to ever go winless in a 16-game season. 

But they’ve been on the upswing recently — making the playoffs two of the last four years.

A big part of that reason was Ndamukong Suh who, as I write this, is set to sign a massive $100-million-plus contract with the Miami Dolphins and become the highest paid defensive player in league history. 

So the Lions — as this column returns to its HR roots — have a retention problem. One of their biggest stars has just walked out the door, leaving some pretty big shoes to fill. (Literally, since Suh is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs north of 300 pounds.)

While that makes big headlines in the sports pages, it’s an everyday reality for organizations: Star performers are the most likely to leave. They are the ones being headhunted aggressively, the ones who have tantalizing offers dangled in front of their eyes on a regular basis. These days, the cold truth is spending an entire career with one organization is almost unheard of.

So what do employers do when a star performer shows up in her manager’s office, clutching that dreaded piece of paper in her hand, and resigns? By the time that happens, it is invariably too late. The employee has already been through the emotional rollercoaster and come to a final decision — and she is very unlikely to change her mind and renege on the commitment she made to her new employer, no matter the counter-offer. That means employers need to be proactive and look for warning signs among top performers long before it reaches that stage. 

I’ve talked to some HR professionals who have a “too big to fail” list of key employees — where it would be especially damaging to the business if they walked out the door and never returned. HR works with managers and educates them on warning signs to look for and come up with specialized career paths to keep these star employees engaged and on track. 

Mentoring programs with senior executives are popular options, and some have even gone as far as creating new positions — just for those individuals — to show they are committed to their long-term development.

But even that may not be enough. Because, sometimes, the grass truly is greener on the other side of the fence. The Detroit Lions will undoubtedly miss Suh and the presence he gave them on defence. But this is where the news gets good, and it’s something worth remembering when a star performer walks — nobody is irreplaceable.

The Lions are now busy looking for Suh’s replacement and working on plans to spend the money they would have given him on other star talent. The same strategy works in everyday organizations. A departure can provide an opportunity to shake things up, to change the way things are done and to give new talent an opportunity to shine.

When a key employee leaves the business, it hurts. It makes everyone involved do a bit of soul searching and wonder what they could have done to keep that worker. But, sometimes, the honest answer is nothing would have made a difference. The opportunity was just too good to pass up. 

As long as you know you’ve done your best and provided opportunities to your best workers, then you — as an HR professional — should be able to sleep pretty soundly at night. Because with great HR practices in place, those shoes will undoubtedly be easier to fill. 

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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