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Working cattle on the ranch Burt Rutherford

3 tips to keep your “A team” employees happy

Star employees lead to a well-run operation. Take steps to avoid losing your best workers. Part two in a two-part series.

Last week, we looked at how to spot your best employees and how pay for performance can help you keep them. This week, we conclude the series with more tips on keeping your best hands.

Healthy environment

Vital as it is, performance pay is not the only tool for retaining top employees. You also need to cultivate a respectful and supportive work environment. “It’s important that people understand what the business wants, and that they feel valued when they meet the employer’s expectations,” says Cutting. “The ability to contribute and to feel involved with the success of the organization can be its own motivation.”

Here are some additional factors that keep your best people aboard:

Autonomy. “High performers do not like to be micromanaged,” says Christina Eanes, a workforce management consultant in Alexandria, V.A. “They want the freedom to do their job in a creative way, along with the requisite responsibility and authority.” That serves the organization well. “Innovation happens when smart people find new and better ways to get their jobs done.”

Frequent feedback. Top performers want to know where they stand and want feedback more than once a year. A negative December surprise, especially if it affects bonus pay, may well send them packing. The HBR report highlights the importance of monthly performance reviews.

Advancement pathways. Top performers expect the employer to help them advance in their fields.  “You need to create a culture where people want to work with you because of what they are going to learn and have a real clear-cut career ladder so they see how they can move up,” says Donna Cutting, CEO of Red Carpet Learning Systems, Asheville, N.C.

Sometimes clearing a path for advancement is easier said than done. Often in agriculture, upward mobility is difficult or impossible depending on the size and scope of the operation. What can you do? “You need to create a growth path for top performing people that keeps them feeling challenged even though they are not advanced into management positions,” says David Dye, president of Lets Grow Leaders, a management consulting firm in Washington D.C.

One solution is to feed the craving of top performers for new skills. “High achievers have an insatiable need for self-development,” says Eanes. “They have an ingrained need to develop themselves, so the more opportunities you can provide them to learn, the more loyal they will be.”

Tailor your offer

Because not all top performers have the same motivations, you need to consult with each of them to better understand specific needs. “I suggest designing what I call an Individual Development Plan (IDP) with each person,” says Eanes. “Determine the next logical level of knowledge and expertise and what can you do to help them achieve it.”

An IDP might include a planned pathway to advancement, or the acquisition of new skills. One individual might take on responsibility for larger projects. A second might share their knowledge by training other people. A third might cross-train in areas outside of their core competency. Think of these as “expertise promotions.”

These work environment modifications, combined with a robust pay for performance plan, should go a long way toward keeping your best people from jumping ship. Monitor how well you are doing by asking your staff for feedback. And observe how employees perform: Are they acting in more motivated ways and paying closer attention to things really important?

Creating a program to retain your top people takes time and effort. The payoff, though, can be considerable and letting things slide is unacceptable.

“Businesses which fail to retain their best people will be stuck with a majority of their employees being slackers and overtaxing the foundational employees whom they rely on for productivity” says Richard Avdoian, an employee development consultant in St. Louis.. “And that will lead to a decline in employee morale which will in turn impact productivity and devastate profitability.”

Perry is a freelance business writer based in Washington, D.C.

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