" Carr-Michael have been effective at developing the business and highly cost effective. They combine board level strategic direction with practical operational process development and implementation "

CEO Online and telesales retailer

Holding On To Your Best Talent


How to hold onto your best Talent


Companies should have a major preoccupation: how to hold onto their best talent.


Annual company reports shout out that “employees are our most powerful assets”. But most businesses will also say that they lose good people that they would sorely like to retain. Holding onto great people is key to generating sustainable growth and to changing the face and pace of your company.

For some business owners this is a difficult nettle to grasp: some tend to think of themselves as the leaders and dictate how the business is run and in so doing stifle input from others. In other cases the owners are very aware of their heavy reliance on a few key people to help them; they become concerned that changing the status quo could upset the “balance” of the business and risk long term profitability. In both cases the SME feels hemmed in and over reliant either on themselves or on a few favoured lieutenants to come up with all the answers.

This article takes considers how SMEs can hold onto their best talent and use them as key drivers of success for the business from four perspectives:
• who are the Talented?
• how does the company help the Talented?
• how to manage the personal career and company career?
• how can you hold onto great Talent?




Who Are “The Talented”?


Talented people are everywhere. The trouble is they may be talented in ways that help or hinder the business. Many business owners and managers regularly see employees who spend more time and expend more intellectual energy working on how to avoid doing something rather than just getting on and doing it. The issue in most cases is not that the employees are not talented, it is that their talents are not appropriately tuned to what the business is trying to achieve. Despite this rather negative view, the truth is that most companies have plenty of talent. It is more a question of unleashing it in controlled ways than anything else. If this is true then the obvious question arises: Who Are The Talented?

Answering the question is often easy. The difficulty is in agreeing what are the criteria that define “talent” in your business.


Too often we just look to people who are very efficient and effective at what they do. They are great “operators”. They work quickly, rarely make mistakes and deliver. The trouble with this all too common view of “Talent” is that it fails to measure people’s overall impact on an organisation. Great “operators” may well deliver the cash, but if they do so in a declining market, the shareholders and employees eventually run out of road.


So as we all know the identifying talent in your company is not just about who delivers today, it is about who delivers today and tomorrow.  Finding out who is talented in your company is therefore not a simple question. It should be a structured set of questions against a relevant set of criteria that define not only the skills and competencies needed today, but also those that will deliver growth for the business over the planned future. Although operational excellence in your current business is key today, there is no point holding on long term to the talent that delivers it, if the current business does not need those skills in a few years time.

Identifying the talent in your company must therefore be based on the criteria that deliver results today and drive new business tomorrow. Often this identifies very different people in the company. Those who are more “left brained” thinkers: they prefer a structured and controlled way of working, and those that are more “right brained” thinkers, those who prefer open styles of working and enjoy change. In addition, both types also need to score highly on the core values of the company that produce the cohesion and focus needed to compete in ever changing and increasingly competitive markets.



How does the company help the Talented?


The standard response for most companies in looking after their talented people is to fete them with praise and recompense. However we all know that this is not effective: if it were we would not see the talented move on to pastures new, and we would not be worrying about how to keep our best people.

The truth is that most talented people are often only able to show off their talents because of the companies in which they work. Putting it simply: talent is a relative measure. It is relative to the company in which someone works, or more accurately it is relative to the sector in which they work. Talented people want to work in winning teams – it expands their ability to progress and progress is the key motivator for all of us (more so than salary or remuneration). So a major plank in holding onto good people is not about their personal rewards and recognition, it is about how the company responds to their ideas and actions in ways optimise progress for the company and the individual.

In one of our clients a year or so ago, the owners were concerned that their best talent would leave the company as the economy started to come out of recession. They were concerned that as they could not afford to pay any more money that key staff would move on, damaging their ability to growth their way out of the recession. With ur help however the client took a broad view of the issue. Together we worked out quickly how the company added value to customers and who was most involved. We set about changing how the company rated its people to make sure that talent was identified against running the day job and separately against driving sustainable growth. In so doing the client was able to change how it recognised great work in all key areas of the business. This was critical to them in holding onto their talented people. It also meant that the whole team understood better what was expected of them in being efficient on current work and effective in delivering new business. It increased understanding and respect between all employees, produced a greater (wider) view of what great talent actually was and increased the respect of all individuals to the strengths and weaknesses of each other.

So the first steps in holding onto talented people is to have a clear view of what talent means in all its forms and to set up an organisation that recognises and responds positively to great work on the day job and on growth.

How to handle the Personal Career and the Company Career?

There has been a sea change in most people’s working lives. No longer do "company careers" exist in the way they did even ten years ago. Employees are much more likely to work on projects than have careers in the old sense of the term. As such employees and business owners need to work together to help manage the different expectations each has of the other in working through from one side a “personal career” and from the other side a “company career”. This may sound like it is two sides of the same coin. But it is not for a number of critical reasons.


Firstly the relative values to the employee of managing their (longer term) personal career and (shorter term) company careers are very different (one is personal the other “team”).

Secondly the employee is buying the company is selling (an opportunity): so objectives are not perfectly aligned.

Thirdly the stage that an individual is at in his or her personal career is a major factor and may have little to do with the type of work that brings in money.


Those who are financially independent may only be interested in work that is innovative and stimulating; those who have high monthly outgoings may sacrifice workplace enjoyment and interest purely for financial stability. Alternatively a company may need to secure long term employee loyalty to lower its cost base and deliver incremental growth; or it may seek short term support to meet specific growth objectives. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that companies need to know how to handle the similarities and differences in managing careers at both levels: company and personal.

In small companies (generally those under £5m turnover and 20 employees) the owners often have a view that their employees should be “loyal” to them. The scale of the business makes it easy for people to become friends or close colleagues, so a natural team spirit develops. When someone leaves it is often a significant change for the company and creates disproportionate upset. Consequently small businesses tend to focus heavily on low staff turnover to give stability. But what about growing the business? Consistent small teams often focus on delivering day to day cash – they know each other well and recognise a set way of working at a set pace. This may be good for the short term, but it does not encourage personal, team and company growth.

In medium and large companies we also hear similar issues: “how can we manage the expectations of all our employees to the benefit of the company?" The answer has to be the same for all, even businesses with close knit “family” teams: personal careers and company careers are not the same thing. At times they cross over and follow similar paths, but the days of companies nurturing and developing employees through career progression are disappearing fast. Each type needs separate management by companies. Company careers are dispassionately about skills and competency mix, and succession planning. Personal careers are unique to the individual, they can be influenced by companies but not managed by them.

Some people reckon that the breakdown of company careers started in “corporate life” with the surge to MBAs in the 80’s, which gave individuals a differentiated offer and a bag of debt that made them mobile between companies just to pay back on their academic investment.  What is more likely relevant is that technology and rapidly changing customer needs have been a major driver of business change, requiring fast responses in uncertain markets. This has produced a whole generation of people under 40 who have worked for many different companies, each time adding experience and skills in a way that could not be delivered within one organisation. Therefore managers need to respect the ever increasing fluidity of labour and use it to their advantage. The ability of a company to recognise the importance of personal careers and dovetail them where possible to company careers provides the basis for considerable competitive advantage.



How can you hold onto great Talent?

If you ask a loyal customer who regularly buys a particular brand what makes them carry on buying the same thing when new competitors and propositions are bombarding them all the time, you tend to get the same answer: “because its great value, never lets me down and makes me feel good”.

Buried in the responses of brand loyal customers are the responses of company loyal employees. Why have you carried on working for the same company? “Because they treat me well, I like the people, I know the sector and I enjoy it.”

Given this obvious link between how customers respond and how employees respond, it is not difficult to work out how to hold onto great talent – and at the same time attract and retain more great talent.  Teams that work harmoniously and progress (grow) become great places to work. They attract the best and retain the best. They also do something else: they continuously “raise the bar” by working off each other – pushing new ways of working and floating ideas for new products and services. Simply put, success breeds success.


So the key to holding onto great talent is to provide the environment for them to develop and progress in line with the growth of the company.

However, company progress (growth) has to be managed. Growing purely by working harder not smarter will drive stress that most employees will resent and reject – usually by finding another job. It’s no great surprise that when companies start to show stress they do so by losing their best people first. Any business that is losing its key talent needs to take fast decisive action to reset the organisation as the place to work – easy to say, more difficult to do.

Resetting the business drives the need to check all the fundamentals of the company. It starts with confirming or adjusting the core business strategy and making sure that all operational activities are aligned and support it. This includes testing and reviewing the core values and purpose of the business and crucially the direction and speed of growth needed to develop a successful business.


This may sound totally obvious, and it is.  The issue however is that most companies don’t do it. When they lose good talent they often dismiss it as an aberration or worse “a blessing in disguise”. They find some specific reason for the loss rather than truly evaluating what were the circumstances and situations that lead to the employee leaving and are those same issues relevant to others and likely to occur. So in addition to setting the right direction, growth rate and purpose for the company, all business owners and managers have to retain an inquisitive mind and an analytical appraisal behind the loss of any of the company’s talent.

People buy what they like, good people work where they like.....just as you set your products out on the customer market stall, do so also for your employees.