Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down

by Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Harvard Business Press

In today’s brutal market, companies are slashing spending on talent just when they need their star performers most. But there is a way to make the most of your top players without breaking the bank, argues bestselling author Sylvia Ann Hewlett in Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down.

Hewlett is a Columbia University professor, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review. Drawing on recent surveys by the Center’s Hidden Brain Drain Task Force, 50 multinational companies committed to talent innovation, Hewlett shows how talent management is being reinvented for high impact at low cost.

The conventional wisdom claims that in a recession, valued employees will be so grateful for a job that they will gladly put in the increased hours and effort. In fact, attrition after a layoff has been shown to be much deeper than the layoff itself: Hidden Brain Drain research found that 64 percent of survivors were considering leaving and 24 percent were actively looking for a job, knowing that in tough times, competitors are delighted to cherry-pick proven performers.

Even worse than flight risk for companies struggling in the recession are plummeting rates of engagement among former workhorses: 73 percent of Hidden Brain Drain survey participants reported feeling "demoralized," 74 percent felt "paralyzed" and 64 percent felt "demotivated." Women are disproportionately affected, with 84 percent of women likely to leave, compared to 40 percent of men.

How can managers keep their best people performing at their peak? Surprisingly, throwing money at the problem is no solution. To motivate top talent, challenging assignments, high-quality colleagues, recognition and respect far outweigh compensation.

Based on these findings, Hewlett describes eight pragmatic interventions to nurture high-performers, many of them battle-tested by Hidden Brain Drain members. Among them:

  • Create a "no-spin" zone of clear and copious communication. At Moody’s, for example, company-wide town hall meetings are immediately followed by mini-town halls between managers and their teams. Team leaders are instructed to ask, "Were your questions answered? What did you think? What are your concerns going forward?" They then pass the responses up and down the ladder so that everyone feels in the loop.
  • Use time as currency. Flexible work arrangements, including mini-sabbaticals, working at home and guilt-free exercise breaks have been proven to boost employee productivity and cut employer costs. For example, Citigroup actually saves money and attracts millennials with its new Alternative Workplace Strategy that encourages remote working and hoteling.
  • Create career opportunities. A-players have high expectations for their career trajectories. Ironically, reduced teams offer more options for stretch assignments and cross-functional roles. When formal professional development programs are cut by shrinking budgets, smart leaders will look for hands-on experience to strengthen their performers’ resume.
  • Restructure with care. If you’re forced to cut jobs, make sure people understand why they’re being let go—and set up support network that helps displaced employees scope out new jobs. Booz & Company created a talent bank of former Booz consultants whom they call on for short-term projects, refer to clients—and can tap when conditions improve.

There’s never been a better time for proactive efforts like these. Retaining, sustaining and fully realizing the potential of your top talent is the key to a company’s renewal and growth. Being known as a "stand-out" employer during a prolonged downturn has an enduring impact on a company’s reputation, enabling it to attract and retain the brightest and the best over the long haul. Hewlett proves that talent initiatives don’t have to be expensive and today’s recession may be an unexpected opportunity for companies to become talent magnets in the future.