How far should I go to keep a star performer who has an offer to work at a competitor?
—Hymie Betesh, New York
Not as far as you’re probably considering, we imagine, given the panic that strikes most managers when a star threatens to shoot out the door.
But, before we expand on that answer, let us thank you for being among the first to ask us about the “care and feeding” of top performers, which has more to do with a company’s success than virtually any other factor.
After all, the team that fields the best players usually wins, doesn’t it?
But the vast majority of people management questions we receive, both through this column and during our travels, pertain to the management of employees who are floundering.
We hear, “Isn’t it cruel and heartless to, each year, let go of the people with the worst performance and least potential?” To which we answer: “Just the opposite. Poor performers need to know where they stand in the organization, so they can start looking for the kind of work in which they will excel for the long-term”.
Sorry to digress; underperformance, obviously, is not your problem.
That should be a good thing, and, typically, it is. Under normal circumstances, to keep stars happy, you just need to give them what they crave: outsized compensation, effusive recognition, enjoyable, challenging work and the feeling of not being micro-managed. But all that changes in a split second when a star asks to see you, closes your office door and says, “I’ve gotten an offer I think I just can’t refuse.”
Your first instinct, of course, will be to match the offer financially. Usually, though, that won’t be enough—the competitor luring your star has been smart enough to make the deal richer in other ways with, say, more job responsibility, or a bigger title. You can match those, too. And that’s where the trouble starts.
Promoting your star into a new role just to keep him can incite a little riot—especially if the promotion is over people who feel they deserve the same kind of treatment, but just haven’t threatened to leave.
Before you know it, your other stars will be insulted by your accommodation, and even some middle-range performers will feel resentful. And, at the end of it all, the only contented person left in the place might be your over-performer, who has decided to stay, now feeling more indispensable than ever.
Sounds deadly? It is.
We recommend a more proactive approach. During the normal course of business, make the management of your stars a top priority. Never take them for granted, and make sure all of your managers understand that star retention is a key performance measure.
But at the same time, remember that top performers sometimes leave simply because they have outgrown the opportunities at your company. With their performance, they have earned the chance to reach for horizons beyond what you can offer them in the long haul.
And because of that reality, you must always be prepared to fill in behind any key person who departs, no matter what the size of the business.
That’s the beauty of a rigorous human resource programme, with frequent performance reviews, consistent coaching, and the kind of backup planning for every key position that can readily answer the question, “Who replaces George or Carol if they leave?” Such back-up planning, by the way, must happen at least annually and can never become a rote, fill-in-the-blanks exercise just to get it done.
Instead, it must be conducted with the gritty intensity of a war game. Only then will your organization be able to replace a departing star within eight hours—yes, eight.
Only then will your organization be able to send the important message that no star is bigger than the organization.
Now, we realize it is natural to fight for a star, especially since a competitor is involved. But experience also tells us that once a top performer gets the bug to leave a place, heroic rescue efforts are of limited use.
You can throw out a fancy title, add an awful extra layer, and in the short term convince someone to stay. But when they go, and they usually do in time, all you’re left with is a cobbled-up organizational chart and a bunch of confused employees.
Better to keep your house in order and send your star off with well wishes.
If you’ve done your job, very soon, another star will be born.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning Campaign readers can email them questions at email@example.com. Please include your name, occupation and city.
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