It can be nearly impossible to retain the talent you need most. In many cases talented employees feel after two or three or five years that they should move on. All the pay raises, bonuses and attention you shower on them may not be enough to compete with the lure of someplace new.
Here is one tactic you may not have considered for retaining rare talent: fire them.
What kind of top talent is easy to retain?
Why would we want to fire key employees? The clue lies in asking this question: “What is the one source of top talent that we have no trouble retaining?” The answer is that we have no trouble retaining free agents (e.g. consultants, contractors and freelancers). They want to keep us as clients. They want a relationship that spans decades. If we treat them half-decently they are with us forever.
The catch is that we are not their only love. They want and need other clients. We don’t have them full-time but we do have them a long time—and that may matter more.
So when I say “fire them” what I really mean is to offer them the chance to shift their career from one of being an employee to one of being a free agent. Your company will be their rock, offering them enough work to keep them in business while giving them an opportunity to spread their wings.
The free agent life style is appealing but it can be hard starting out. Give a key employee a platform for making the shift and they may leap at it rather than looking for full-time work at another firm.
Who deserves this opportunity?
We normally think of high potentials and high performers as the people we can least afford to lose, but that is not entirely correct. The people we can least afford to lose are those who skills are hard to replace.
If someone has key industry knowledge or some particularly rare skill then it may not matter if they are a high performer, you just need them because they can’t be replaced. Those are the people where a durable non-employment relationship may be better than a fragile employment deal.
But wait, isn’t this still a crazy idea?
Whether or not it makes sense to help key people leave the company and become free agents really depends on whether you have a choice. If you think you really can retain the person as an employee, and keep them fresh and motivated, then by all means use traditional retention tactics. However, if realistically you know there is nothing you can do to hang on to rare talent then perhaps it’s better to set them up as a free agent before they are permanently lost to another firm.
The old world is changing. Employment just isn’t as important a concept as it once was. We need to embrace all the opportunities a world beyond employment offers our organizations. If your company offered you a deal where they would help you transition from being a bounded employee to an unbounded free agent would you take it? If you are even a little tempted then you’ll see the power in this strange tactic for retaining talent.