From the War for Talent to the Great Resignation and everything in between, the acquisition, retention, and development of talent remains a challenge for many organizations. There probably isn’t a single company, be it large, medium, or small; be it privately held or publicly traded, that isn’t continuously involved in designing, developing and constantly refining people-related policies and practices. And yet, for all their hard work and efforts, nailing down a best practice formula and sticking with it remains as elusive as ever.

The argument would not be complete if we do not take a closer look from the employee perspective. What sort of an experience are employees having and how well does it reconcile with all the strategies and practices in place? These are nagging questions that in the best of times are challenging; today, they determine the fortunes of organizations, so getting them right seems existential.

Why all the fuss? The reasons today are what they have always possibly been yet amplified by the fact that we have never been at this crossroads before. The challenges the world faces today have neither been seen before, nor have they ever been as intertwined and complex as they are today. For that, there is a desperate need for superlative talent.

Ultimately, there are business implications behind attracting and retaining superior talent that can be summarized in the phrase “disproportionate contribution and returns”. According to McKinsey, superior talent is up to eight times more productive. Furthermore, they increase revenue and profit, they promote higher levels of engagement, they are strong advocates for the company, and they are a shining example.

Here are my takes on what some ingredients the secret sauce ought to include.

Leadership is the beginning, the middle, and the end

That’s where the buck stops. People work for people; they join organizations that are run by people, and while this is certainly modeled from the very top down, it needs to permeate all leadership and managerial levels. There are two implications here:

  1. As the top individual you need to be at the top of your game, and the hard figures won’t tell you the full story, so make sure you have someone holding the mirror to you and helping you raise awareness. If you don’t have a good sounding board, make sure you work with a coach to help you raise your awareness.
  2. Avoid hiring bad leaders, and make sure you provide leadership training to those in charge of others.

Remember that leaders do not come preassembled, and that leadership is a constant journey. Last, you will need individuals who can model, develop, and inspire to engage and retain good quality talent.

Modelling is not restricted to the top; beware of bad apples

You read an organization not just by how the top leads, but also by how everyone behaves. The applecart is a befitting example; all it takes is one bad apple, and as Alexandre Pope once said: “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien

We first pity, then endure, then embrace.”

Toxicity in an organization doesn’t announce itself with trumpets and banners; it creeps in ever so stealthily, and it can set in before people realize it, which is why it is critical to be vigilant for those already within, and those you wish to attract.

If you want to be a talent magnet and retain superior performers, get rid of the bad apples and be ruthless in irradicating them from your ranks. Furthermore, avoid falling into the trap of excusing bad and toxic behavior no matter where it comes from. We have all been in situations where a superior talent has inexcusable behavior that spreads negative vibes around the organization. Be clear on those to either correct that behavior or be prepared to take the decision that will protect your environment.

Be singular in your purpose and clear about your values

More so today than ever before, good talent wants a purpose to align with. People need to know why they are doing what they are doing; why they get out of bed; and why they choose one organization vs. another.

If purpose alignment is critical, so are the values of an organization. Avoid the trap of using generic terms that will be instantly forgotten. An organization’s values are the behaviors that people will exhibit especially when they are under pressure or when they are at a fork in the road. It is the behavior that will signal the values.

We are witnessing an emancipation of talent, and this means that more and more people are questioning the logic, benefit, and sanity of working for someone else; of stretching themselves to make money for businesses and causes for which they have no affinity and with which they may not be aligned. Covid has pushed us beyond the tipping point and, today, more and more people want to be consistent with themselves and their beliefs, and- therefore- where they apply their effort.

Allow people to blossom

Good talent tends to be unreserved in its devotion to the job they do. I have seen many people who will simply not hold back in the manner they give to their employers. It is as if they are full time employees who spend the rest of their lives doing part-time things like being a spouse, a parent or other. A salary and a place to spend every day isn’t enough of a magnet or a glue to attract and retain the quality needed to drive growth and prosperity.

The thing about growth and prosperity is that they are two-way streets, and if the organization is not able to foster an environment where such development and blossoming take place, then there is something broken in this equation, and the leadership shouldn’t be surprised if they aren’t getting the results they desire.

What this means is that there needs to be clarity for the people on what their professional engagement can lead them to. It also means that they need to have a say and room to co-design that path so they can own it and make it theirs. Obviously, this isn’t to say that this creates a free-for-all environment, but it needs to create room for engagement and autonomy.

Growth and development are part of the DNA of life, and if the job isn’t providing that environment where people thrive, then expect to struggle with delivering your organizational objectives, not to mention your ability to get the best people out there.

Prepare to be flexible

The flexibility of people working with me has been one of the biggest contributors to the success we experienced as a team. Today, we have now entered a period where flexibility by organizations is not only expected, but critical to the decisions of talent. I recognize that there is no easy answer, but I suppose leaders need to think reciprocity. Flexibility must work two ways, … at least this is what capable talent expects.

We are all in uncharted waters, and I realize that the job of leadership is not easy. There are so many unknowns and there is no play book. This doesn’t mean that the question of flexibility cannot be co-created by both management and the people. What is wonderful about that is the innovation that will likely be born out of such a process, and how much that can contribute to defining cultures and attracting good quality people.

Lest we forget, communicate

Talk often, talk frequently, talk about the big things and talk about the small things. It is said that ignorance breeds fear and hatred. The solution is to talk and communicate; only that will spread clarity, only that offers an opportunity for expression and transparency.

Furthermore, communication fosters an environment where people feel valued and heard; it also improves engagement and contribution, and it will also help you weather whatever storms you encounter along the way, which we all know will be more than what you have hoped for.

Imagine the echoes a reputation for open communication creates about an organization, one where people have the conduits and channels to express, to dissent, to contribute and to simply be heard. Now, that is powerful.

The above topics do not attempt to provide an exhaustive list of all that an organization needs to do to attract and retain good talent. There obviously is hygiene that covers the nuts and bolts, which is important. It has been my experience that challenging as hygiene can be, there is no replacing the focus and attention that needs to be given to the soul of an organization, and that is always in the intangible way an organization shows up and carries itself. That is the best advertising and magnet for talent.