How to Develop and Retain High Performers

A reader asks:

“One of my top performers recently quit, and it made me realize that most of my staff development energies end up going to lower performers who are struggling. What should I be doing for my higher performers who are self-sufficient and thus don’t generally get as much attention from me?”


First, kudos to you for thinking about this. All too often, managers don’t pay a lot of attention to developing and retaining their high performers – because, after all, their work is going smoothly and isn’t demanding immediate attention – and then are blindsided when a rock star announces that she’s accepted another offer.

You can avoid that by shifting your perspective when it comes to high performers. While they might have their work covered and not need a ton of guidance from you, you do have a crucial job where they’re concerned: retaining them. In fact, with most high performers, retaining them is your #1 job. (Assuming, of course, that we’re not talking about a high-performing jerk, in which case you have a different job.)

Here are five key things you can do to get the most from a high performer – and maximize your chances of keeping her around:

1. Help her grow in her role. Great employees are usually looking for a sense that they’re continually learning and expanding their skills – and gaining the increased responsibility that reflects that – and they’ll often go elsewhere if they can’t get that in their role with you. To make sure your staff member doesn’t need to seek growth somewhere else, work with her to set stretch goals that will move her out of her comfort zone, add new responsibilities to her plate when she’s ready for them, and talk explicitly with her about how she can continue to grow. For instance, when your fundraising director hits her $3 million annual goal, you might talk with her about a higher goal for the next two years and brainstorm together about how she might operate differently in order to achieve it. (Of course, make sure your high performer wants this. Not everyone is excited about increased responsibilities, and you don’t want to push a high performer into something that feels like a burden. So know her preferences – and ask if you’re not sure.)

2. Invest her in the longer-term picture of where things are headed in her role. Talk with your staff member about how what she’ll accomplish in the next year ties to what the organization is trying to achieve. Make sure that she understands how crucial her work is and how it fits in with the whole. For instance, you might talk with your regional director about how her organizing will be critical to your ability to expand early childhood education, and how her neighborhood outreach will make it possible for parents to talk one-on-one with legislators.

3. Make sure she knows how much she’s appreciated. Too often, high performers leave because they don’t feel recognized or valued, so make sure she knows how much you appreciate her contributions and talk explicitly with her about the impact her work has had on your team or organization. This means more than the regular “great job”; it means being specific about why it was a great job, e.g., “The way you intervened when the phone bankers were getting off-message really impressed me; you got them back on-track without decreasing their enthusiasm about the work, and I know that’s hard to do.”

4. Use “stay interviews” to find out what it will take to retain her. Instead of worrying about whether a high performer is happy in her role and planning to stay long-term, you can simply ask directly: “You’re crucial to our work. How can we make sure that you stay for the next two years?” You might do this over coffee or lunch, or as part of a performance evaluation discussion. And even if you don’t get a clear commitment, having an explicit discussion and showing that you care enough to be thinking about it can make a big impression that will factor into her thinking about her role with you.

5. Don’t forget about money. While great employees generally aren’t motivated primarily by money, we’ve been surprised by how much it can help. While organizations understandably often want to put as much money as possible into direct program work, the reality is that without the best possible people to execute those programs well, your results will suffer. After all, one high performer will generally get better outcomes than several so-so performers combined, so if you have an opportunity to differentiate your best people’s pay, do it – you should find that they’re worth every penny and then some.

Absent some sort of mind control (we hope to patent one soon!), you might not be able to keep your high performers forever. But by being thoughtful and strategic about the relationship, you can often keep them fulfilled and contributing at a high level for much longer.