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Nurturing the top talent in your organization

Why is nurturing top talent so important?

Research has shown that an organization's top talent:

  • Contribute disproportionate value to the organization
  • Have the easiest time finding other employment

Here are a few other interesting findings about the value of top talent:

  • Top performers produce as much as 10 times more than the average worker, while they often require less than two times the pay (Sullivan, 2012)
  • "Superstars" produce up to 12 times more than the average employee (Corporate Executive Board)
  • The top performer differential is 2.5 to 10 times that of an average employee (Sullivan, 2008)
  • The more top performers you have, the greater the organization's productivity

So identifying, rewarding, nurturing, and retaining your organization's top performers become organizational imperatives simply because of the value these individuals contribute.

Your top talent truly are your most strategic asset.

Start by identifying your top talent

While "top talent" is generally understood to be the employees who are given the highest scores on their performance appraisals, there is no single definition of top talent, except perhaps: those employees who possess and exhibit the characteristics most valuable to your organization.

But the characteristics or behaviors that make an employee a top performer vary by organization, department and/or group. In some parts of the organization, creativity or innovation might be most important, in others it might be analytical skills, or even customer focus and empathy.

To truly identify your organization's top talent, you need to start by identifying these distinguishing characteristics, and ensuring you cultivate these in all your employees. One effective way to do that is to capture these characteristics as job-specific competencies and include them in the job description and performance appraisals for the role.

Then, when you evaluate employee performance, you can use appraisal scores to flag top performers. But you should also consult managers and other staff to confirm what the numbers tell you, and to identify high-potential employees who might not be identified by your performance appraisal process for a variety of reasons.

Reward, motivate and engage

Once you've identified your organization's top talent, it's important to put programs in place to effectively reward, motivate and engage them, so you can retain them.

In their research, Towers Watson found that while top performers are similar to other employees in some fundamental ways, they also want some very different things from their work environment and leaders. Top performers:

  • Are most engaged when they can embrace and be guided by an organization's vision, values and strategy
  • Are concerned about their organization's ethics. They need to work for a company that acts with integrity and has a sense of social responsibility to the community and the larger world
  • Are less likely than other employees to believe their company is innovative, efficient and ready to anticipate market demands
  • Are less likely than others to believe they have sufficient resources to be effective in their jobs
  • Have a strong sense of urgency and competitive spirit that comes through not only in their own work style, but also in their impatience and frustration with a range of organizational attributes affecting the workplace

Here are some practical things your organization can do to ensure these needs are met:

  • Clearly articulate your organization's compelling vision and set of values, and regularly communicate these to all employees
  • Ensure your senior leaders support this vision and values in their words and actions
  • Include top performers in strategic planning initiatives and programs that aim to improve organizational competitiveness
  • Provide your top performers with the tools, resources and work conditions they need to work to the best of their abilities
  • Equip all managers, but especially those overseeing high performers, with solid management skills and ensure they are effective in their roles
  • Support the career progression and professional growth of all employees, but particularly of your top talent

But you may also find some significant variation in what is important to your top talent. Those with an entrepreneurial spirit may want "skin in the game" or a stake in the rewards the company receives from their work (e.g., stock options). Those with an innovative spirit may want time to dabble or experiment, unfettered by management constraints. Some will value time off, group activities, prestige, perks, development opportunities, plum work assignments, more independence or autonomy, the opportunity to mentor someone, etc. The list goes on and on.

Before you can take action to nurture your top talent, you need to take time to get to know them as individuals and discover what motivates and engages them. Once you know this, it can be fairly easy to address their needs. Just make sure that their managers and the larger organization do exactly that. And make sure that nurturing your top talent is an ongoing activity for everyone, not a one shot deal.

Support balanced development

Just like all other employees, your top talent need opportunities for development and career progression.

Most top talent will have a few areas where they excel, and it's certainly beneficial to them and to the organization to support further development of these capabilities. But we all know the stereotype of the gifted student who's brilliant at math, but woefully lacking in social skills. It's also important to nurture an individual's development in areas where they are less strong, in order to allow them to make greater use of their strengths. This can be particularly important for high-performers.

And your top talent may need coaching to help them avoid the trap of overusing their core strengths, to the point where they become liabilities. Attention to detail can lead to perfectionism. Strong social skills can lead to low productivity. Empathy can cloud judgment and skew priorities in decision-making. Passion can become intolerance or impatience. Top performers need to know when and how to use their strengths in a way that maximizes their success and the success of the organization without negative consequences.

Help top performers be part of the team

While it's important for top performers to know they are valued by their organizations, they also need to know that their contributions are underpinned by many other people. Few of us succeed alone. Most of the time, our work is supported by countless other individuals, visible and invisible to us. Placing too much emphasis on the contributions of top performers can result in a toxic work environment where some individuals or groups are overvalued while others feel completely overlooked. Acknowledging the value and contributions of all employees helps your top performers understand their place on the team and helps all employees strive for better performance.

Read how others are nurturing their organization's top talent

By adopting talent management best-practices, leading CPA firm Clark Nuber was able to empower their top performers by giving new insight and visibility into their performance, contributions and progress.

FuelCell Energy automated their performance management process and is implementing a succession planning program so they can make sure they recognize their top talent and pay extra attention to the employees who most deserve it.

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