The trouble with talent is… keeping it engaged

Small business owners must go the extra mile to retain the talent on their books, says Lyndsey Simpson, co-founder of the Curve Group

The trouble with talent is... keeping it engaged

I’m going to make the assumption here that you are an entrepreneur, and a good one at that. This means that you are creating jobs, and thus performing one of the vital roles to society – helping lift us out of recession and back into growth. All good so far. Your size, growth trajectory, industry niche or mere oppositeness to the large corporates will see some of the best and brightest wanting to join your party.

However, you often won’t be able to pay them as much as they, or you, would like and because they wear many ‘hats’ in a smaller business, they learn lots of skills and either out-grow your organisation just as they become vital to your business or they are dragged away by a more attractive opportunity offered by a competitor.

If we rule out financial incentives from the off, just how do you keep hold of your talent and keep it engaged? If you were a large corporate, at this point you would invest in a talent programme offering coaching, rotations around the company and challenging projects. But for all the things that the big boys with deeper pockets can offer, your ability to get closer to your talent than them and do something personal actually gives you the upper hand.


1 Don’t assume they are engaged

Just because you have a cool vibe to your offices and the individual concerned is positive, adding value and seemingly enjoying their work, don’t be fooled. Unless you directly ask them if they are engaged, feeling recognized and feeling sufficiently challenged, they often won’t tell you until it’s too late and they are handing you their resignation.

In May 2010, the Harvard Business Review published its study of 20,000 emerging stars across 100 companies globally. These were people having money thrown at them in big corporate talent programmes and yet over 30% suffered from a lack of engagement. They had the ability and aspiration but were insufficiently committed to the organisation.


2 Moving on up

Talented individuals often think that they have to jump ship to gain a promotion. Well, the onus is on you to demonstrate that this isn’t the case by promoting from within and developing your home-grown talent. By making internal moves your first port of call rather than bringing in the ‘shock trooper’ who can hit the ground running, you send a strong message to your talent that it can grow and be promoted without leaving the fold.


3 Don’t delegate talent management to line managers

Unless all of your line managers are as talented as some of the stars reporting into them or are learning and development experts, they won’t be able to provide sufficient stretch to the individual concerned. Keeping talent management restricted in this way also encourages the ‘hoarding’ of talent within certain teams and departments. Moreover, working with the same person every day severely limits the opportunities and breadth of experiences to which talent is exposed.

It is far better to bring your talent management and development into a central programme, run by the person in your business who is most passionate about coaching and developing others. Alternatively, make sure that you as the business owner heads it up, thus giving talent the greatest exposure and biggest challenge to aid their development.


4 Link personal objectives to business objectives

So, you may have identified that your talented individual needs to develop their finance acumen to have more of an impact on the business in the future.

However, rather than tying their personal objective to a generic competency, why not make it real and with a clear link to your business objective? Instead of saying ‘you will develop your finance skills by attending course X and be able to write a business plan and model a new investment opportunity by date X’, it is probably better to say ‘by the next budget round in September you will be responsible for writing the 12 month P&L for X division and financially modelling an investment opportunity that could really accelerate the returns in that division by 15% over the next two years.’


5 Don’t protect them

So you’ve had the ‘chat’ mentioned in the first point above and they have said they feel they can do more and need to be challenged more. Great. Give them exactly what they have asked for. Throw them a project or move them into a new role where they can or must acquire new capabilities to be successful. Not something that is simply a stretch from what they have already proved they can do.

Whilst this may seem a little ‘sink or swim’, if you let them get on with it, give them distance and, at most, act as coach for them to bounce ideas off rather than a leader or manager giving them the answers.


6 Tie them in to your strategy

Emerging talent – specifically that at a more junior level – needs to be brought on the journey. Share your plans for industry or world domination in detail. Help them understand why your company is on that path and what the vision is going forward.

At this point, you have piqued their interest. To take it to the next level and really generate engagement, ask them for their input on your strategy. What would they do differently? Have you missed anything? Are the numbers challenging yet achievable?

Upon asking those questions, be prepared to listen to their answers and even adapt your strategy accordingly. Lastly, tie them into it and make it personal.

Find ways to get their personal involvement and commitment into your strategy and you really will be on to a win-win for them and your business. 

Lyndsey Simpson
Lyndsey Simpson

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