Keeping Performance Up When Business is Down

Sylvia Hewlett: This last year I've been collecting a lot of powerful data, in terms of loyalty, trust, engagement and performance in this recession. In fact, it's going to be a book with the Harvard Business School Press coming out in October, it's just called "Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down." Very direct title.

So what have we found out? First of all, the attention of the suite of business leaders has very much been wrapped up in figuring out who to lay off. How to deal with the clamoring clients, perhaps. How to deal with vaporizing values. It's not that they haven't had very urgent desperate stuff on their agendas. But one thing that does seem to have fallen by the wayside is the nurturing of the talent that you chose to keep.

And in this work that we are just winding up, what we find is that your top performers often feel very neglected. Teams have been depleted. They're also dealing with very discontented clients and customers. Their comp [compensation] is down, their stocks are under water. You know the list.

So if you measure loyalty to employer, trust in your current company, engagement with your present job, everything is plummeting. One rather amazing figure is that top talent is spending 56% of its time looking for the next job. That's a terrible thing to be doing all day everyday, week in, week out. Because you are being relied upon to fuel renewal and growth for the company you are in.

The very obvious big recommendation of this book is that you actually focus on the folks you need to get you to the next stage, and don't assume that because it's a difficult job market right now, somehow they are captive talent right, and they are going to give 110% of their efforts because they are scared about the options out there. That is not true. There is still a lot of churn in this market. We are finding that our top performers are able to go elsewhere.

In fact there was an amazing piece of work published last summer showed that in the wake of the RIF, a reduction in force, which is a euphemism in New York for a mass lay off, 31% of the survivors walk out the door. And it is precisely the folks you don't want to leave. Those are the best performing of your current talent, the ones that can find start-ups, boutiques, whatever is the option out there. But they are finding those jobs.

So it is a danger that you loss your best talent because you are actually not focused on motivating them right this second because you're making a bunch of assumptions about their stability and focus which actually aren't true.


Founder and President of the Center for Work-Life Policy Sylvia Ann Hewlett says companies must protect and nurture their top performers by taking a thoughtful approach to career trajectory.

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