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January - 2009 - issue > Entrepreneur
Retaining the Best Employees
Gunjan Sinha
Thursday, January 1, 2009
During these difficult and retrogressive times, it becomes particularly important for companies to retain their very best employees and leaders. Often times, as companies are in the mode of retrenching for survival, they overlook the value of their best employees, leaders, and teams. Both startups and established companies thrive on the drive and tenacity of these employees who have proven themselves time and again. As the economic climate turns difficult, it is quite easy for entrepreneurs and business leaders to overlook the value and contributions of these indispensable employees and contributors. So, how does one effectively retain these ‘star’ employees during such difficult phases of business?

Know your ‘A’ Team

It is important for you to know your ‘A’ team or ‘star’ team - employees that are super critical for you to achieve your business performance and objectives. These employees are the heart and soul of your organization, driving revenues, innovation, customer satisfaction, and operational excellence. It is also important that these employees explicitly hear from you that they are indeed special. Being explicit with your feedback will give them the additional sense of comfort that they are being valued in the organization.

Make them More Involved in your Core Business Strategy

Now is a good time to get your core team to get even more involved in shaping the strategy of the business. If you had been reluctant in the past to share with them all the financial risks and challenges, now is a good time for you to become more open and honest and bring them in the loop. This additional vote of confidence and trust will further enhance their loyalty towards you and the business. Business leaders use the downturn and difficult times to further raise the commitment levels from their top performers. This may be a good time to have strategy sessions focused on establishing a game plan for the future. How can we reduce cost, without risking revenues and innovation? Let your team start creating strategies for you.

Offer Upward Mobility

As you bring down cost, reduce management layers, or retrench employees from the lines of businesses, it is important to look out for opportunities for your best employees. This would be a good time for certain key employees to take on additional responsibilities and get promoted. Perhaps, as you look to do much more with less, these best employees can increase their span of influence and leadership to help you attain your business goals. This requires creativity on your part to find opportunities for your key employees and team that both fit the needs of the business and provide a growth path for them. Many times, during business reorganization key employees find themselves demoted or are left with reduced responsibilities. Such moves by the management can certainly lead to significant retention challenges.

Drive Trust and Transparency

When organizations go through a tough patch, it is quite important to emphasize a culture of trust and transparency. The key employees expect to be taken into confidence as situations arise or the business evolves. As a business leader, it is your duty to keep your team in the loop to build that sense of trust and transparency. When the going is good, or the company is on a growth curve, many key employees might still continue to be part of your team, because they are enjoying the growth. But, when the growth slows down or when growth gives way and a decline sets in, these same employees need to be motivated differently. Trust becomes a key factor in any retention strategy.

Create a Company-wide Business Challenge

Your top employees thrive on challenges. As the business transitions from high growth to a muted one or even witnesses a sharp decline, it becomes critically important to find new challenges to inspire your ‘A’ team. These employees were once thriving on growth and market share, but are now looking for the next challenge. Given that the market and business conditions are currently not supporting growth to the same extent, it may be wise to identify some new business challenges to rally the star performers. Perhaps, your next goal could be a strong push towards improving profitability (as opposed to growth), or to lead the market in terms of product innovation, or to drive service quality excellence and customer satisfaction. These new goals will inspire your top performers to get focused on this new company-wide challenge.

I increasingly meet with entrepreneurs and founders who are facing strong retention risks with their top performers, while they are reducing the workforce or reorganizing their cost structures. The five steps for retention outlined above become quite important during these tumultuous times. More businesses collapse when their star performers start to emotionally ‘check out’ and exit, than due to other reasons. No organization can thrive without its ‘heart and soul’, which these top performers represent. Let us ensure we do not loose them during these times of retrenchment.

The author is the Chairman of SiliconIndia.com and MetricStream. An internet pioneer, he was the co-founder and President of WhoWhere? Inc., a Internet directory services company acquired by Lycos in 1998 as well as eGain, an online customer service company. Sinha can be reached at gunjan@metricstream.com

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