How to engage top performers (Toughest HR question)

Let them know they are highly thought of, groom them for leadership roles
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/15/2012

Question: How do we continue to engage our organization’s top performers?

Answer: Almost by definition, top performers are highly engaged employees. The challenge is to ensure they stay that way.

This is important because top performers are usually significantly more productive than average performers. In order to continue being successful, organizations need to keep top performers highly motivated and engaged.

Top performers make up the top 15 per cent or so of employees. Studies show CEOs spend up to 90 per cent of their time with these people — so they get a lot of focus and attention.

But if top performers are no longer engaged, they won’t be nearly as productive. They’re also more likely to leave an organization. This is a real problem.

Before going any further, it’s important to outline just what we mean by “employee engagement.” That’s because, to a large extent, engaging top performers is no different from engaging employees in general.

What is employee engagement?

While there isn’t a universally recognized definition of employee engagement, we all know an engaged employee when we see one. An engaged employee is one who is motivated, committed to the organization and her manager, and willing to put forward discretionary effort to further organizational goals.

Some of the things that typically engage employees include the following:

• providing meaningful work

• providing context so employees understand how their roles fit into an organization’s goals and objectives

• providing meaningful learning and development opportunities

• providing a certain level of autonomy to determine how tasks are completed

• providing a reasonable amount of job security and organizational stability

• providing fair and competitive compensation and benefits packages

• providing a safe and pleasant work environment

• providing employees with the latest tools and technology

• providing employees with information on organizational change that could potentially impact them

• being open, transparent and genuine in employee communications

• having an open door policy

• demonstrating genuine concern and compassion for employees

• having a strong commitment to occupational health, safety and wellness

• ensuring work is fairly allocated and employees aren’t overburdened

• providing sufficient time away from work

• ensuring employees have opportunities to socialize and get to know one another

• allowing employees to work on special projects or volunteer for charity.

Engaging ‘A’ players

Beyond the basics, there are several things an organization can do to specifically engage top performers — also known as “A” players. But first, it’s necessary to understand what motivates these individuals.

“A” players have a high need for recognition — they can actually be lacking in self-confidence in some ways and need reassurance at times. That’s why they are so driven — deep down, many have a certain amount of self-doubt.

That could be because they’re perfectionists. Or they may have experienced a challenge or failure in the past and are determined not to repeat the same mistakes.

Many of these individuals were pushed by their parents to excel academically at school. In some cases, a mark of 95 per cent just wasn’t good enough. For many, that attitude carries over into their work lives.

Top performers really need to be challenged. But managers, in particular, need to ensure these employees continue to do their best work and they don’t do too much and burn themselves out.

While “A” players typically put forward a great deal of discretionary effort, there needs to be something in it for them. Otherwise, they won’t always be top performers. Therefore, rewards and recognition are important. But it’s also important to remember rewarding people solely through money has been shown not to motivate them.

Yet, if compensation and benefits aren’t internally equitable and externally competitive, that can lead to dissatisfaction and turnover — especially among top performers who are well aware of their value in the external marketplace.

It is the other components of the total rewards mix that typically help to engage top performers. Awards of excellence, plaques, gifts, celebrations and extra perks such as an additional day off can help to show top performers their efforts are appreciated. Even an email message from an executive or recognition from a supervisor for a job well done can help motivate and engage such employees.

High-potential employees

While not all high-performance employees are high-potential employees, it stands to reason many top performers will have been identified as capable of moving into executive roles some day. Performance isn’t the only factor taken into consideration in conducting top talent reviews, but it’s one of the most important.

In order to help retain high- potential employees, it’s important to let them know they are highly thought of and to take meaningful steps to groom them for senior leadership roles in the future. This can be accomplished through coaching, mentoring and special training programs. Some employers even put such individuals through executive MBA programs.

The key is to ensure these people obtain the appropriate training and development. They will also appreciate the organization’s investment in their own human capital and commitment to their careers.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

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