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Retaining the talent in a recession


John Pope explains how employers can best attract, retain and motivate the high performers in times which have become tough all round.

Too many of us thought that the good times were here to stay. As a result, many organisations became sloppy in managing their talented people; some even thought that talent was an asset which was tradable and could be bought and sold along with a business, or be bribed to shift allegiance rather like mercenary armies in history changing sides. Many thought that a policy of very high rewards, supposedly based on performance, was the way to attract and retain the sort of people they needed. Perhaps it was, but circumstances are very different now.

What talent do you have?

‘Talent’ is a latent ability or skill. You generally only know what people’s abilities really are when they are well trained, well led and are in a position where they have opportunities to exercise their skills. Do you have unrecognised talent? Remember the ‘performance equation’:
Results = Effort x Skill x Resources x Opportunity
Effort depends on leadership and motivation. Continued effort is in part a result of the way that it is rewarded by recognition, tangible reward and increased opportunity. While it can be easy to measure short-term results, it can be difficult to identify who has really contributed to those results, and how they get them. But you also have latent talent. It is important that you identify those people who could do more, or whose abilities are underused.
Your business has to change, however. It has to change to take advantage of the different world. It may need to reduce some operations, extend others. You will need talented people to make those changes and work in new conditions. People will have to move from one function to another, and perhaps learn new skills. Managing the human aspects of business change may just be a matter of making some redundancies and a few moves. It may not need much more than checking whether you will lose talent when ceasing some activities or closing some department. In a major recession it is more likely to need extra care to avoid losing people you really want to keep or in whom you have made a substantial and recent investment.
Whether those changes are big or small they have to be led by top-management who have to show where they will lead the organisation in the changed world. Your talented people are usually those who are most likely to find new jobs. They are unlikely to stay if they doubt if top-management do not show real leadership.

Why should your talent stay with you?

Why do people stay in an organisation anyway? There is usually a mix of reasons, including:
  • Inertia, domestic convenience, location, understanding how things are done, conditions, unwillingness to learn new skills
  • Opportunities for advancement, growth of experience and employability, implied future progress and reward
And all the other reasons so clearly identified by Marlow and MacGregor 60 or more years ago.
Are they staying just for the money, because they can’t find another one which pays as well, or to collect their performance bonus, or a special retention bonus? Would money, now or in the future, help you retain some of the talent? You have to know what approaches could work in your circumstances. But it is clear that throwing money at a retention problem is expensive and may be difficult to afford at a time when budgets are being cut and belts are being tightened. It is also dangerous as greed feeds on itself, and is infectious.

What might help you keep them?

Employees can be retained through their belief that they have a better future with you than with someone else even if that alternative job pays more. That belief can only be based on the way in which you have kept your past promises, and your evident concern and goodwill so that they do not feel they are wasting their time by staying.
Retention bonuses? Short-term aren’t they? And they have to be realistic. They can only be paid when you have the money, or valuable stock, to pay them in. What about proving that you are helping them become more employable – either with you or outside. That means training them, giving them more demanding and more valuable work – yes, development!
Luckily, in bad times you generally have to reorganise, you have special projects, you tackle new work, or tackle old work in a different way. You discover that those who are operating, at whatever level, need new skills. You have to manage complex projects. The opportunities for new and important urgent work are there – you could redeploy some of your people, give them some training, some guidance and support and develop them on-the-job. You may not be able to do that for everyone who is temporarily displaced but there will be some, and you can assess them for their new skills, capabilities and, most of all their ability to change and tackle challenges.

How to motivate your employees

Well, the change might motivate them; the new responsibility and challenges might; if they don’t you probably wrongly assessed them as ‘talent’.
But the real motivation comes from the leadership shown by the top management team at every opportunity. While the timing and scale of the recession could not have been completely predictable, the signs had been there for some time. Leadership is essential to get out of trouble. There must be no evidence of ‘negative leadership’ from the top-management team. No-one must be rewarded for clear failure, and there must be no excessive redundancy settlements either.
The recession will test everyone, at every level. It is management’s responsibility to know who has it, and to make the changes needed so that talent is used to the full. This is not a time for searching through the files, the talent registers, people’s scores. These are often the result of careful and methodical box-ticking. Much of the talent may be latent, only observed when an individual is given new challenging responsibilities. No system is better than ‘management by walking around’ seeing how people are working and contributing to recovery and success. As those successes are achieved you will know much more about your talented people and who is worth developing further.
John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He can be contacted at
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