Five golden rules for retaining A players

Over the last few months I have delivered a lot of leadership development events. The audiences have ranged from CEOs and MDs to middle managers and “high potentials”. Each programme always ends with a Q&A. And in every case the question on everyone’s mind was “how do I hold on to my best people?”

What they are inevitably talking about are their “A players”. That top perhaps10-15% of the workforce who make an above average contribution. Be that in innovation, customer service, quality, sales performance or technical expertise. Basically the people “who make the boat go faster”.

Of course what every leader wants is more than their fair share of “A players”. Recruiting them is tough and expensive. And once you’ve got them everybody else wants to steal them. There’s just not enough great talent out there to quench the thirst of every business. That in turn drives up competition and fuels salary inflation.

So how do you make sure you stand the best chance of keeping your brightest and best? Well, here’s my top tips:-

  • Stop trying to keep hold of them. I don’t mean that in terms of accept the inevitable. Rather it is about line managers changing their headset.

Too often line managers try to “hoard” talent. They take the attitude that great people are their local asset – rather than an organisational one. They put up all sorts of barriers and smokescreens to stop other managers in the organisation offering their people more exciting, challenging and rewarding opportunities. That’s often simply (if subconsciously) because losing someone good makes their own life harder. And the “green eyed god” factor can apply too – especially if their own career has reached a plateau.

Great leaders are producers not consumers of talent. They see their job as nurturing and growing potential and then selflessly handing it on.

  • A players want to work with other A players. Generally A players are tolerant of B players. They accept that not everyone is as driven or as capable as them. They know that B players are the dependable, loyal and reliable bedrock that every organisation is built on. The middle 66% of the workforce.

What they have little or no tolerance for are C players. Those bottom performers whose negative contribution acts like an organisational sea anchor. A players look at leaders and expect them to do something about poor performance.

The reality for leaders is that they aren’t judged just on their own contribution. You can be the best accountant, marketeer or engineer in the business and still not be seen as a success if you don’t tackle capability issues in your team. And nobody will hold you more to account for this than your A players. Fail the test and you’ll lose their trust and respect no matter how technically capable you are.

  • “The willing donkey bears the heaviest load”. It’s an old saying but a valid one. A players can often do more than their colleagues. However it’s a skill that’s easily abused by leaders – and over time becomes routinely expected and as a result that over-achievement is poorly recognised.

Over time A players can become resentful about the “unfair” burden placed on them compared to their less capable colleagues – including sometimes their boss. If it is combined with a sense leaders are using them to compensate for unresolved performance issues elsewhere then the problem is multiplied.

Over-loading A players is an easy trap to fall into. Often their high achiever traits can make them appear hungry for the challenge but there is a turning point at which it is perceived as being “taken advantage of”. At which point their loyalty and engagement decline and they become vulnerable to another offer.

  • A “safe pair of hands” mindset is potentially a bear trap. Leaders typically like nothing more than predictable outcomes. So giving a piece of work or project to an “A player” lets them sleep at night.

The problem is that A players typically like new challenges, stretch and growth. So giving them an objective that smacks of “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” won’t offer the stimulus they crave. Your “safety” might well be their “repetitive, boring and unfulfilling”.

Leaders sometimes need to take risks. That same piece of work your A player might resent could be somebody else’s career turning point. Giving them that stretch and development might just make them the next A player in waiting.

  • Neglecting A players. All leaders face a time paradox. The people who tend to soak up their time are C players. The ones who need hands on performance management, direction and coaching. Whereas actually they should be spending most time with the A players.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that A players know how good they are and can be safely left to get on with it. However their need for attention and recognition is often just as great as anyone else. Forget that and you will have a big problem on your hands.

The interesting thing is that none of the above points are about reward. And that’s important. Thinking that just showering A players with money will keep them is not true. As our own “Riding the Career Carousel” research showed, less than 20% of the UK workforce sees extrinsic rewards like pay and bonuses as their primary motivator. Get pay wrong and it will be a problem. But equally you can’t just buy loyalty. Engaging and retaining A players is a lot more complicated than that.

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