The View from HR

Want to retain your best employees? Give them room to grow

June 15, 2013 

The job market is tightening for top talent. Surveys suggest nearly 20 percent of employees are actively looking for another job. This may be the same 20 percent that is creating 80 percent of the value in the organization. Poor performers are not usually looking for other employment unless their jobs are in jeopardy.

If you know the top 20 percent of your team or company is actively pursuing other work, how should you respond? Do you go about your business as usual?

Top talent wants much the same as all employees want: a genuine and productive relationship with their manager, a sense that what they do matters and a way to measure their impact. From CEOs to entry-level new hires, we all need the same basics. Sure, these basics may go by different terms, and yes, pay does matter, but these are the foundational human needs in any line of work.

Top talent needs one more thing: personal and professional growth.

Top talent loses energy, enthusiasm, desire and engagement in their work when there are no real opportunities for growth. If they cannot find it with you, they will find it elsewhere. Or, someone will find them and offer just what they need.

Let them grow

Your best people are your best because they are willing to take on new things, figure them out, solve problems and jump the hurdles. They are your best because they do not need or want direction at every decision point and you can trust them to keep you informed. They are your best because they collaborate with you, your vendors, their peers and their staff.

After their basic needs are met, finding ways to keep your best employees growing and becoming better is the most effective retention strategy. Growth for them might mean something completely different to learn and master. It might mean more responsibility and autonomy in their field or current role. For some, it could mean serious community involvement and the time to do it right.

Think of it this way: What can you do to maximize this person’s impact and reach? How can you help them be what they cannot see themselves? Can you challenge them to step outside their current success zone and take risks for both satisfaction and economic rewards?

Outgrowing your company

Yes, growing your best in a purposeful way may mean they one day outgrow your company and its needs. You must remember, however, that along the way they gave you all they had and likely stayed with you longer due to those opportunities you made available to them. Employees who know they are top talent should ask their manager to co-develop a growth plan.

Top talent is not something to lock down, apply golden handcuffs to and treat like the proverbial mushroom garden. Your best employees need sunlight, room to grow, good fertilizer and options.

Jim Collins wrote: “The old adage that ‘people are your greatest asset’ turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.” Successful organizations have lots of the right people doing good work. But your very best people, the 20 percent who cause the 80 percent to happen, deserve your focused attention and a purposeful plan.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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