You Have to Actually Know Your People to Retain Them. Here's Why It Matters. Nobody thrives in a vacuum. When leaders take the time to understand who people are and what motivates them, it nurtures a culture of excellence.
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Nurturing high performers is as much about recognizing how they are different as the excellence they have in common. Consider the case of two of our best people and their priorities: One who always delivers on his projects wanted schedule accommodations, and the other was so driven that every new project felt like a gift and was its own incentive. Providing these high performers with the flexibility and fresh challenges they desired was not only about rewarding excellence. Instead, understanding their individual goals and what motivates them is at the heart of building the kinds of relationships that retain the best people for the long haul.
To put this in context, the annual voluntary turnover rate nationwide is 25%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Studies also report that the average cost of replacing an employee is one to two times their annual salary. Our company has maintained zero voluntary turnover since 2018, marking seven years of 100% staff retention. I get a lot of questions from other CEOs about how we have achieved those figures, so I wanted to share my philosophy.
I see the individual as a representative of the collective, and how we treat one person sends a message to everyone about the value in which they are held, particularly in smaller companies where close bonds are prevalent. I want each employee to hear the drumbeat that I am constantly thinking about how to make our company a better place to work for them. When leaders invest in their top performers in actions as well as words, it creates a bigger incentive for others to become top performers themselves.
Forging trust: Building and passing on bonds
With a plan and the right approach to nurture relationships with top performers, leaders and middle managers can improve their chances of keeping them around. These talents fall into several buckets. The first type of top performer operates independently with total trust. I have been a colleague of our CTO at three of the four companies where I have worked since college. We have known each other for three decades, and his decision-making and dedication take out so much overhead for me as a leader.
I also have long-standing colleagues, some of whom I have known for 10 to 30 years. With these relationships rooted in deep trust, I have the privilege of not having to invest heavily in fostering these connections.
The next type of high performer has earned trust through recommendations. When hiring someone new, I always ask myself who I might know who could fill the position, and then I ask my peers if they know someone. Using warm introductions brings on board proven performers, who then join a chain of trust we have already created. Lastly, there is the standout performer who excels from the outset. They not only align with our company culture but also enhance the overall workplace experience for all their colleagues.
Build relationships through direct reports
While every employee benefits from a trusted relationship with leadership, it is impractical for a single leader to maintain close ties with everyone. Therefore, creating a network that fosters indirect connections is vital. Take our VP of engineering, who is a close friend and longtime colleague. He oversees our largest department: the development team. He holds monthly meetings with his 14 direct reports to stay in tune with the top performers' aspirations and concerns. Regular discussions with him then keep me informed about his team's priorities and support our unified leadership approach.
I aim to replicate this model with all my direct reports, tailoring the communication frequency to their preferences. For instance, our CTO and I meet several times a year for one-on-one time, supplemented by monthly calls and ad-hoc discussions. Our VP of operations prefers more regular interactions, so we converse weekly about her and her team's progress. The goal is to establish a communication rhythm that strengthens relationships with direct reports and facilitates open feedback about their teams.
Different performers have different motivations
Understanding the unique drivers of each team member is crucial for fostering a productive work environment. As a leader, it is my responsibility to acknowledge and celebrate their efforts in ways that resonate personally with them. For instance, we ensure that team members, such as a standout developer who recently completed a demanding project, not only receive recognition for their hard work but also experience the variety in their assignments that they desire.
Newcomers are greeted with an atmosphere of positivity, cultivating an early sense of belonging. It is essential to discern what matters to them from the outset. We recognize that a transition from a less favorable work history may require a period of adjustment, so we are attentive to the nuances of their previous experiences. By demonstrating genuine interest in their well-being and career aspirations, we guide them toward a path of confidence and professional growth.
Related: How to Get Employees to Stick Around
Turn high performers into experts
Investing in top performers transcends mere job satisfaction; it empowers them to evolve into experts and leaders within their domains. Our VP of operations' journey is a great example: Recruited straight from college as a copywriter, she ascended through various roles, accumulating a wealth of decision-making experience along the way, until arriving at her current position.
As her knowledge and experience within the company deepened, so did our relationship, and certain early moments proved pivotal. It was when she sought guidance and I prompted her with, "What do you think?" that the foundation of mutual trust and respect was truly laid. As time passed, her decisions grew in precision and insight. Today, she is one of the most trusted and knowledgeable voices within our company.
Our journey together underscores that the heart of any successful organization beats strongest through its relationships. By nurturing these deep connections, we don't just retain our brightest stars — we empower them to reach their highest potential and set a standard of excellence that propels the entire team forward.