Published: September 19, 2008
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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Are you Worried About Motivating Top Employees During a Down Economy?


RecruiterIf you’re not worried, maybe you should be. In a down economy, the core and bottom performers hunker down, fearful of leaving familiar territory, but your top 20% are still getting calls from recruiters and lucrative offers from competitors or even from other recession-resistant industries trolling for talent.

So what motivates key talent during a tough economy? It comes down to five things every leader and business owner can do. You should be doing all five on an ongoing basis, but particularly now.

1. Does each top performer and high potential leader know that, in fact, he or she is considered a top performer and/or high potential leader? In many companies, there are no formal programs to identify and develop high potential talent, so how can they know they are high potential if no one tells them? I can’t count the number of times I have had confidential conversations with high potential leaders and have nearly fallen out of my chair when I realized that they had no idea that their boss saw them as high potential. Some people overestimate their talent, but others underestimate it. Never assume they just “know.”

2. Are you ensuring a good mix of stretch assignments, formal development (training, coaching, etc.), and exposure to key decision-makers across the business? High performers and high potentials give a lot and they ask a lot in return. They appreciate an employer who invests time and money in their growth and they leave those who don’t. Ninety-seven percent of coaches are hired by individuals. I am routinely contacted by go-getters who want to get ahead and are willing to invest their own money because their employers won’t invest in them. It will come as no surprise that, to a person, these highly motivated initiative-takers have already decided to leave their current employer to find one that will take their ambitions seriously and support their growth with actions, not just words.

Great Employee!3. Do you recognize their work? If your company is too large for you to personally recognize each star employee’s work, what are you doing to ensure that your managers recognize excellent work and never commit the ultimate sin of taking credit for their subordinates’ work? No leader has ever said to me, “I take credit for my subordinates’ work.” It’s the subordinates who tell me it’s happening. But take extra care here, because even the overuse of the word “we” can be a form of theft, as in, “we compiled this data” when, in fact, you personally had nothing to do with the outstanding compilation; you’re just the presenter of it.

4. Does everyone know his or her impact on the business? This applies to everyone, and doing it ensures that you give your top people the alignment they need in order to run the business smoothly. What are you doing to ensure that your team -- and everyone on their teams -- understands the company’s vision, purpose, direction, and goals? What is your team doing to ensure that every employee understands his or her impact on the business? It’s not enough that the senior leaders get it. Everyone needs to get it and be personally connected to it in order to feel motivated through good times and bad. This needs to be an agenda item on a regular basis, not just once, and you need to hold your people accountable for doing it.

5. Are you scrupulously fair? It’s great to give extra attention and exciting assignments to your high performers and high potentials. That’s actually fair, since you’re getting more from them than from the core. Fairness here doesn’t mean treating every single person exactly the same. It means objectivity.

For example, if your relatives work in the business, do you unfailingly hold them to the same standards as everyone else, or does there seem to be a disproportionate share of relatives on your high-potential list?

Do you scan your high potential and high performer lists for diversity? In this day and age, overrepresentation of any one group is a red flag that you may be failing to attract the best talent from the total population of qualified talent. Those high potentials and high performers who are not part of the dominant group will head to more welcome environments in which they are not always the odd one out.

Do you have someone inside or outside the business who will call you on it if you unwittingly show inappropriate favoritism toward a friend whose performance is just average?

Note that these tips are not costly to implement, which is also an advantage in a down economy!



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