Retaining Top Talent: My Take

Mon, Mar 11, 2024

“A true master is not one who has the most students but the one who creates the most masters.” ~Neale Donald Walsch


If you have been following me for a while, you know I’m obsessed with finding peak performers; I think it’s the most critical skill an entrepreneur can cultivate. 

The #1 question I get on this topic: How do I retain top talent once I have found them? 

You’ll hate my answer: You don’t. 

I’ll pause and let that sink in for a moment. This needs to be a fully integrated realization before you can even begin attracting peak performers. Why? Because top talent doesn’t want to be “retained.” As often as not, that concept is repellent to them.

People are at the top because they prioritize growth. 

While they’re learning and growing, they’ll be hyper-engaged, the best employees you’ve ever had. 

Once they see the growth path taper, they’ll look around for what’s next—even if they don’t realize it at first. 

In the same way an entrepreneur looks for opportunities, top talent looks for growth. You can’t stop them any more than someone could stop you. Trying is hubris and sets you up to be at odds with them (assuming you could con them into coming to work for you first).

So, what do you do?

An organization that consistently loses top talent may even be worse off than one that settles for B-players but at least can retain them. This is one of the reasons I see people get scared off from hiring real juggernauts. 

My answer is to be honest with them about the concern and explain the risks as you see them: You’re excited about the impact they can make in your organization but also understand that a person with their talents and capabilities may not want to stay in one place very long. 

Further, given the importance of the role you’re hiring for, losing them unexpectedly could be damaging. So, here’s the compromise: 

You commit to helping them with their professional growth if they commit to leaving you better off than they found you. 

That includes a replacement. 

Gamify the process in a way that their mission isn’t complete until they’ve helped to find, hire, and thoroughly train the person (or people) who’ll be taking over for them.

Here’s the other thing about top talent: They hate to lose, and they follow through on their commitments. 

However, you need to make sure you manage this expectation early and often. 

Don’t sneak attack them with a new requirement for moving on (complete with a full-on guilt trip). In my experience, the peak performers understand 100% and are even flattered.

Ideally, their growth opportunities are within your organization. You can continue to ascend them as they begin outgrowing their role. However, the day that no longer holds? Keep to your word and do everything you can to help them continue their journey. 

Because here’s the thing: Other members of your team are watching, too. 

Become the type of person (or organization) that consistently finds, cultivates, and churns out superstars. You will have them beating a path to your door to come and work for you. It’s a karmic promise.

If you’re a peak performer, tell me what you think about my approach. What am I getting right? What did I get wrong? 

Employers: Let me know what you agree or disagree with. I’m sure the conversation will serve everyone.