Five Ways to Retain High-Performing Staff

Last updated: August 18, 2021
Estimated reading time: 5.5 min


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 staff members who are struggling. What should I be doing for my high-performing staff who are self-sufficient and thus don’t generally get as much attention from me?”

First, kudos to you for thinking about this. Retention is an ongoing effort—and one of your most important jobs as a manager. It’s a crucial part of relationship-building.

Yet, when a staff member is meeting or exceeding expectations, it’s easy (and sometimes necessary) to divert your energy toward the four-alarm fire blazing in another area, or even just onboarding your new hires. All too often, this means managers miss opportunities to develop and retain staff who are getting results and contributing to a thriving organizational culture.

Staff development isn’t just about guidance and coaching on the work, it’s also about a holistic view of the road ahead. This means proactive conversations about your staff member’s goals, work, and ambitions—even when things are going well.

Here are five key things you can do to boost retention for each member of your team.

(Note: This article is focused on retaining high-performing staff, but these strategies can also be used to support staff who aren’t quite meeting expectations.)

1. Plan for continuous learning and growth.

Your goal is to make sure your staff member doesn’t need to seek growth somewhere else. Find out what skills they are motivated to expand, what they love about their role, and what new things they want to try. Talk explicitly about the staff member’s trajectory at the organization, and work with them to set stretch goals. Make time for next level training or add new responsibilities if that’s the best way to support their growth.

Of course, not everyone is excited about increased responsibilities and you don’t want to push something that feels like a burden. Always ask if you’re not sure, and be mindful of your positional power. Make sure the staff member knows it’s OK to say no or to propose their own professional development opportunities.

2. Invest in the longer-term picture for the role.

Talk with your staff member about the way this year’s goals tie into long-term plans and invite strategic thinking. Help them see their impact toward the bigger picture (for the organization, the field, or the system). For instance, you might say to your youth and families director, “I’m excited about your work to boost TK-K enrollment because it’s critical to demonstrating the need for universal early childhood education. Your investment in family engagement is going to ensure parents are organized to talk one-on-one with legislators in the coming session.”

3. Show appreciation.

Sometimes staff leave because they don’t feel recognized or valued. Make sure your staff members know how much you appreciate their contributions and effort. Be explicit about their impact and specific in your praise. Give concrete examples of how and why something was great. For example, “I know managing our social media is just 20% of your role, but it’s a much bigger part of your impact. I just heard from our CTO that your effort more than doubled applications from our target audience. We’re so lucky to have you.” This isn’t just about big gestures during the performance evaluation period; retention is built on cumulative small moments throughout the year.

4. Use “stay interviews” and develop retention plans.

Instead of worrying about whether a staff member is happy or planning to stay long-term, you can ask directly: “You’re crucial to our work. How can we make sure that you stay for the next two years?” or “You are truly an asset to our team, and I wonder about your future plans. What can I do to support your growth with us?” You might do this over coffee or lunch, or discuss trajectory as part of the performance evaluation. And even if you don’t get a clear commitment, having an explicit discussion can make a big impression and invite dialogue that gives both you and the staff member a chance to talk about aspirations.

Keep in mind: When organizations grow and change, some people do leave—and that’s healthy. Sometimes, especially after particularly rough years, leadership mistakes, or major transitions, staff leave. They might be burnt out, embittered, or maybe they simply don’t agree with the organization’s new direction or the path to get there. They might just be ready for something new. When staff share their desire to leave, expressing how much you value their contributions and that you’d love to find a way to keep them (if it’s the truth!) is fair. However, persuading someone to stay against their own interests rarely results in long-term retention or a staff member whose drive is reignited. Many leaders make the mistake of persuading a staff member to stick it out “just one more school year/campaign cycle/funding cycle” by appealing to the mission of the organization or their relationships with members, students, and colleagues. More often than not, this strategy delays the inevitable and creates undue pressure on the staff member (especially BIPOC staff members or more junior staff members) to sacrifice their own interests and well-being for the sake of the organization.

5. Make it worth it.

Make your organization a stellar place to work. Start with pay (if you have the authority), but don’t stop there. Look at your compensation policies and see what you can offer (pause and do a bias check to ensure you evaluate all your promotion and compensation decisions with an equity lens). Beyond raises, consider the employee benefits, professional development funds, and other benefits your organization offers.

For middle managers whose sphere of control might be limited when it comes to compensation, it’s the intangible benefits of working at your organization that you’ll need to invest in. Those include the culture, team work, sense of belonging, and sense of purpose that comes from getting lasting results. Find out what motivates your staff members to stay—and build on it.

In the end, you might not be able to keep every staff member forever, even if you want to. But you can cheer them as they soar to new heights and keep the door open should they ever choose to return. Be thoughtful and strategic about the relationship—every step of the way.

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