Just when you thought things were going well, you lost a top performer to ostensibly greener pastures. It might have been to an opportunity which, on the surface at least, seemed less attractive than what was available at your practice. You’re left scratching your head. “What could I have done?”
Bill Barron has consulted with professional service firms, including valuation and litigation support groups for 20 years. We asked him to comment on the disappointment, and even surprise, he has seen in management at these firms when high performers leave unexpectedly. Bill’s insight comes from his work with 100’s of high performing and high potential executives and professionals.
In the world of business valuation and litigation support (which is to say the world of professional services), where employees are your key asset, retention is high priority. Practice leaders I deal with want to do the right thing, but may be caught in a ‘forest for the trees’ syndrome. As a sense of business confidence returns to practices, there could be upward pressure from your high performers as that sense of confidence spills into the employment market. Here are some issues I’ve seen, and ways to strengthen your retention efforts.
Two realities. As I took a closer look at several departures, I saw that each side was operating from a different reality. On the one hand there was management/ownership who when asked spoke very highly of the departing employee praising their skill, work ethic, productivity, and overall value to the organization. On the employee side there was a different perspective. Often they felt unsure of what management thought of them and their skills, were not clear about the future and what it held for them, and were in the dark about the financial condition of the firm (which often promoted a level of fear).
Communication gap. It wasn’t hard to see a communication gap. The lesson is that just because it is obvious to you that an employee is a high performer, the employee may not have the same internal level of confidence and assurance that external demeanor and performance might indicate. In fact, one of the more curious things I have seen is that the high performer/high achiever often has less confidence and sense of security than the more mediocre employee.
What’s needed is consistent communication and reassurance to the employee that their performance is valued, appreciated and recognized. This is not something that you do only at annual review time or after some yeoman-like all night effort to complete a project. In fact, it is almost taken for granted that acknowledgement will be delivered at those times. Thus the less expected a comment is when received the more effective, authentic and meaningful it will be.
High performance equals high ambition. The communication gap also plays a role in this issue. It’s just a fact that most high performers are ambitious and continually have an eye on their overall development and career advancement. Frequent discussions about career path and opportunity are essential. Don’t make the mistake of waiting for the employee to bring up the topic. You may be hearing it from them as they hand you a resignation letter.
Identifying the competencies needed for advancement and providing the requisite training, development, coaching and mentoring are all ways of demonstrating sincere interest in an employee’s future. The kind of employee that you want to keep is usually the type who appreciates developmental opportunities. You will also build loyalty.
Financial fairness and security. While plenty of studies say that money is not the primary motivator, especially for high performers, it is always relevant. In these tighter times it is easy to fall into the “they’re not going anywhere, they’re lucky to have a job” mentality. First, smart employers see tough times as an opportunity to bring in talent they might not ordinarily be able to attract, and are on the lookout for top talent. Second, and particularly for top talent, compensation must be in line with the competition. Don’t assume you know what the competition is doing. Do the research and make the adjustments necessary to be competitive even in tough times.
Compensation is an important component of “security”, just not the only one. I know of several situations where talented people left firms because they weren’t being fully utilized in the face of frequent harping by management of the need for everyone to be utilized. High achievers do not easily tolerate under-utilization and can find themselves frustrated by it. If you have a high performer who, for reasons beyond their control, isn’t being fully utilized, take the time to reassure her/him as this frustration can trigger insecurity and the inclination to look elsewhere.
High performers are hard to find in any area of professional services. Nowhere is this truer than business valuation and litigation support. The success of your practice turns in large part on your ability to find them … and keep them.
After 18 years as a practicing attorney, including 10 as the Managing Partner of his own firm, Bill Barron opened Lawmark Consulting. Since 1991 he has consulted with professionals and senior level executives on personal and organizational development, strategic planning and change implementation. His experience includes marketing and practice development for professionals, leadership succession coaching, teambuilding, conflict resolution, and issues relating to growth and expansion. He is certified in the highly regarded Birkman® method, a workplace behavioral and motivational assessment tool, and the Lominger leadership tools.