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Martin Baker

Clear Lessons & The Charity Learning Consortium


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How to hold on to talent in tough times


Martin Baker shares some good practice from the Toolkit for Managers.

During periods of economic change, organisations must fight harder for survival and are dependent on top performers to give them the edge over their competitors. However, when the future is uncertain, the risk of losing key individuals is especially high. Here’s some practical advice to ensure your organisation keeps a firm hold of its top performers through the good times and the bad.

Share the vision for the future

If your organisation is going through a difficult period or is on the brink of a major change programme it’s important to share key information with employees at an early stage. The facts of the situation should be made clear, including:

  • The reason(s) why the particular change is happening
  • The vision, hopes and expectations for the future
  • What is at stake if the change does not go ahead
  • How the organisation plans to achieve its goals

By creating a strong, persuasive vision for change, your top talent will have a reason to stay and see the changes through.

Provide regular, clear communication

During periods of uncertainty, employees can start to make assumptions – rightly or wrongly - about what is happening. Some employees, including your top performers, may feel confused and worried about what lies ahead. Regular communication of key information is essential to minimise the risk of losing vital people. Ideally training should be provided to ensure that managers are fully prepared and able to:

  • Provide a consistent, clear message about what lies ahead
  • Answer difficult questions and concerns promptly and accurately - if details are not available managers should be honest and let employees know when they can expect to be informed
  • Manage information gaps and minimise negative rumours or gossip

Ensure leadership is united

Strong, united leadership is essential in keeping top talent committed and engaged. Your top performers will quickly spot if leaders are insincere or unsure, so it’s important to ensure that leaders remain positive and demonstrate their commitment to the organisation’s future. Coach senior leaders to ensure they:

  • Remain visible and approachable during difficult times
  • Are open and honest, and can acknowledge that they don’t know all the answers
  • Present a consistent, unified response to key issues and challenges

Make retention a top priority

When market conditions are in a state of flux, talent management can often be forgotten as other areas take precedence. However, keeping top performers is a vital differentiator as organisations fight for survival, and should therefore be a business priority. Some organisations establish an internal taskforce to address and lead retention issues, whilst others hold managers accountable for retention by building in specific objectives linked to performance and reward. Managers have an essential role to play as ‘retention champions’, and can influence and encourage employees to remain with your organisation by providing:

  • Exciting, challenging work
  • Structured career development plans
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • A supportive working environment and culture
  • Regular recognition of employees' achievements through praise and positive feedback
  • The opportunity for regular one-to-one conversations between employees and managers 

Be flexible

In times of economic uncertainty, many organisations find they have to do more with less, which means that additional pressures can be placed upon key individuals. If your top performers are being asked to work harder, it’s important to consider their needs. Think about the work-life balance needs of your employees, and whether the burden of additional workloads can be partially offset by flexible working arrangements, e.g. time off in lieu once the situation improves.

Conduct ‘stay’ interviews

During periods of change, many organisations conduct retention interviews with key performers. Employees are consulted on how they are feeling in relation to the current environment, the issues that matter most to them and what will encourage them to stay with the organisation. As well as making employees feel valued and appreciated, managers can use these meetings to assess individual development needs and create tailored retention plans. Remember that employees will be concerned about the ‘me’ questions, e.g. ‘how will this affect me?’, so it’s important to have specific discussions with key individuals about how organisational changes will affect them directly. As well as helping employees feel valued and appreciated, managers can use these meetings to assess individual development needs and create tailored retention plans.

Be creative with rewards

There are many non-financial ways of ensuring that key employees remain committed and engaged. A simple verbal or written ‘thank you’ (perhaps in the form of a handwritten card or note) can go a long way. Providing refreshments or meals for those who are working long hours is an inexpensive way to show appreciation. Senior leaders can also help to motivate key employees and boost morale during pressured times by paying personal visits, writing congratulatory letters or presenting a ‘CEO’s award’ in recognition of special efforts by key employees.

Martin Baker is the managing director of the Corporate eLearning Consortium. Its online Toolkit for Managers is used by more than a million managers. To download more great tips go to

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