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  • Writer's pictureRussell Lookadoo

R.E.A.L. Retention of Key Employees

I recently had the opportunity to speak at an international conference of over 400 small to medium sized business owners in Las Vegas. This was a great chance to be with some of the most optimistic and positive people in the world, small business owners.

My presentation addressed a key issue for the success of small businesses, the retention of key employees. This topic may not seem urgent in light of the softening of the economy, but in discussion with these business owners, it became clear that now, more than ever, retention of those you need the most is critical. It is strategy of major corporations to “trim the bushes” at the first sign of a tight economy. Even the most sound financially will use the rumors of hard times as a “cover” to ditch their poor and marginal performers. Why do they do this? Simple, by unloading two, or three non-contributors, they free up resources to hire that one superstar….your superstar!

First, put aside the thought that pay will retain. Remember the following axiom: People do not leave you for more money; they just get more money when they do leave. According to the Society for Human Resources Management,

Top 7 reasons people leave:

  1. Unmet expectations

  2. Poor job fit

  3. No feedback or coaching

  4. No career growth

  5. No recognition

  6. Overwork/Stress

  7. No trust in leadership

So how does a small business keep key talent? You need to adopt a multifaceted plan for creating an organization no one will leave.

The four pillars of this plan are R.E.A.L:

  • Recognition

  • Equity

  • Affiliation

  • Leadership

However, before you consider this strategy, inventory your processes and see if you have the following four pre-requisite practices in place.

  1. Do you have organizational clarity? Best practices in this area include published functional organizational charts outlining who is responsible for what and complete job descriptions for use in recruiting, interviewing, training and performance management.

  2. Do you have a sound and consistent recruiting process? The best practices here have eight to ten steps to ensure you bring on the right people first.

  3. Do you have a formal performance management process? The best in class here begin with a performance plan, follow up with documented feedback, hold quarterly appraisals and clearly tie pay to performance.

  4. Do you foster a positive and harmonious workplace? Great workplaces provide all tools and processes to be successful, are safe and clean, respectful, free from any harassing behaviors and promote work and family balance.

Once these fundamentals are in place, focus on R.E.A.L.:

RECOGNITION: We are not just talking about pay here, rewards, properly designed are key to your performance management prerequisite. Pay is not a motivator, poorly designed, or delivered pay is de-motivating. Recognition is tremendously motivating. In fact, top performers seek recognition, poor performers hide from it. How are you managing your performers?

  • Raise the bar, good performers respond to challenges.

  • Romance your top performers. Court them the way you courted them during the hiring process. Why did you stop?

  • Celebrate every job. Give top performers an understanding of why, not just what they do.

  • Celebrate failure. If your top performers are afraid of risk, they will leave you.

  • Give your time: Spend time with those that have passion, not poison for their jobs.

  • Give their time back. Use meetings wisely. Recognize accomplishment with time off with pay.

  • Remember the family. Resignations occur the night before, at the kitchen table.

  • Be a world class “thanker”. Nothing beats a handwritten note.

EQUITY: I am not referring to ownership in your company, rather, develop job ownership:

  • Find areas where the employee can control decisions in their own work

  • Make orientation and on-boarding special

  • Encourage entrepreneurship; have your employees hold themselves accountable

  • Replace job descriptions with job deeds!

  • Open the books, share as much as you can with your key people,

  • Provide authority to do the job. Does it really matter if it is done your way?

AFFILIATION: Do you have company culture that top performers chose to bond with? Engineers (managers) make a building work; Architects (leaders) make a building inspiring.

  • Be clear and focused on your identity; have a written live vision statement.

  • Give aware company logo-ware, your employees should wear your brand.

  • Foster contrarian toughness. Use tough times to build a sense of worth.

  • Be a story teller, Tell and re-tell stories of company heroes and accomplishments

  • Establish company rituals, events and ceremonies that build identity

  • Protect good people from bad people. Find and control your company “thermostat.”

LEADERSHIP: By far this is the most crucial pillar. There is no more important role of a business leader than being a talent magnet.

  • Be visible, intentionally go to you employees, listen and learn from them.

  • Be a FILO leader, First In, Last Out, not in time at work, but with every challenge or opportunity.

  • Talk the talk. Constantly instill the company vision and values in every action you take, every decision you make.

  • Be charismatic but be genuine. Make everyone you talk with feel special and necessary.

  • Exude confidence; inspire confidence in your self, and in others.

  • Commit for the long haul. Invest in equipment, branding and talent.

  • Decide to be your company’s CRO (Chief Retention Officer)

To quote Joe, Tye, in his publication, 50 Great Ideas for Finding and Keeping Great People,” People do not quit a leader, they quit a boss. People do not quit a mission, they quit a job. People do not quit a team, they quit an organization.”

Ask yourself, are you managing an organization, with jobs to do, or leading a team on a mission?

Russell Lookadoo is the HR Guy for small businesses. His firm, HRchitecture, specializes in helping business leaders accomplish their goals by effectively using their teams. Russell brings over three decades of experience designing Human Resources solutions that achieve business strategies in varied organizations ranging from a small manufacturer to the nation’s second largest bank. Russell holds the Senior Professional in Human Resources designation from the Society of Human Resources Management and earned the Certified Compensation Professional designation from World at Work. Russell attended the University of North Carolina on the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Industrial Relations. Visit his website at

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