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Ten Ways Managers Can Engage Their Virtuosos

In today's hypercompetitive economy, it's perhaps more important than ever for businesses to keep their star performers.

In good times and bad, keeping truly gifted talent remains an ongoing challenge. Large companies face this problem, but their sheer number of employees mitigates it considerably.

Not true for smaller firms.

When small companies hire well, they thrive for a given time but constantly worry that the exit of a key person will set them back. They can't stack up talent in the corners like so much firewood.

Instead, they have to find creative ways to keep exceptional employees engaged and motivated, even when there's little room for advancement or promotion.

Here are 10 ways they can do that.

  1. Compensate fairly. Don't pay an average wage unless you want average performers.
  2. Model the management behavior you want others to emulate. Give feedback, delegate, and conduct performance reviews. Don't micromanage. Communicate, set timeframes, establish goals -- and get out of the way.
  3. Help solo performers learn to manage. Send them to management training, provide opportunities for them to manage others, and hire them a coach. Give them feedback about their management style and practices, not just their technical abilities. Tie rewards to developing others. Give them real responsibility for results, hiring and spending. Not all virtuosos want to manage, however. Virtuosos often tend to be solo performers -- wishing to create their own destinies rather than counting on others to define their success. If you can offer both tracks, you stand a better chance of addressing the preferences of the individual.
  4. Virtuosos want access -- to you, your top clients, investors and anyone important to the organization. Take them to meetings outside the organization. Introduce them to the important people in your world, and give them opportunities to develop relationships with these people.
  5. Virtuosos want to apply their talent to their work. Offer opportunities for them to do that by specializing. They learn quickly and eagerly. When you provide chances for them to leverage strengths, they get excited and feel motivated.
  6. Offer tuition reimbursement for those who want to cross-train. If you notice you need specialized help in marketing, finance or some other function, instead of hiring a new person or a consultant, consider sending your top performers back to school.
  7. Let them cross train with other departments and assume positions of responsibility. This costs nothing and pays mightily.
  8. Give recognition. When you don't provide it, virtuosos feel cheated and devalued.
  9. Allow for work-life balance. Top performers tend to be overachievers in all aspects of their lives. Just as they expect to do exceptional work when they are on the job, they insist on outstanding relationships in their private lives. Clever people know the difference between critical and unimportant uses of their time. If you insist on long hours, rigid schedules and busy work, they will disengage.
  10. Surround your best with other top talent. Star performers, by their very nature, come through your door motivated and ready to engage. They want to contribute to the success of an important organization and work with other "A" players. Make your organization a place where the clever choose to work, and your stars will become your best magnets for other top performers -- and all will stay engaged.

No matter what you do, however, you will suffer some attrition of your virtuosos.

They tend to be a restless lot, constantly on the hunt for greener pastures and more excitement. They learn rapidly and bore easily.

Therefore, you MUST be prepared to lose top talent in a small business. If you don't have a Plan B, then you don't have a Plan A.

Linda Henman, Ph.D., is an author, executive coach and founder of the Town & Country, Mo.-based Henman Performance Group.

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