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3 things your top talent always confide in me

Too many high-potential talent feel unheard, unsupported and unappreciated. You can wait for HR to tell you this after the employee leaves, or you can do something about it.

6 min read


3 things your top talent always confide in me


You know how there is comfort in watching the same movies over and over? Or how listening repeatedly to a song from a wonderful time of your life conjures up warm feelings?

Well, as a consultant tasked with retaining and developing companies’ very best employees, I hear the same hits again and again. In my case, they aren’t always feel-good, and they certainly won’t transport you to a “better” time and place.

CEOs and other executives often ask me to survey their top talent, perhaps to learn of their attitudes regarding the company’s direction or perhaps their desires for new work arrangements. There is a place for these broad surveys — they can uncover surface issues and widely held concerns that allow for benchmarking over time.

However, one needs to dig deeper to find out what’s really going on, and, not surprisingly, often my interviews turn into conversations on the state of work, perceptions of management, and how the employee fits in the bigger picture.

The feedback generally comes back to three main themes, all of which are very personal:

  1. No one asks me what I want to do when I grow out of this position
  2. No one asks me about ideas I have for the business, be it a new product or a better way of working
  3. No one thanks me for the work I do

When I hear “no one,” I have trouble believing such absolutes. However, such strong statements shouldn’t be ignored. They’re indicative of deeply held beliefs. And, by and large, my clients don’t ignore them (after all, they hired me for a reason). When I share this kind of feedback with the executives who commissioned the study, I’m often surprised by the level of self-awareness shown to such feedback.

“They may have a point,” is a common — and heartening — response. It turns out that executives usually have a gut feeling there is a problem, they just need a road map to find the source and help with solutions. So, let’s take a look at this uncomfortable, personal feedback.

1. No one asks me what I want to do when I grow out of this position

Put another way, “my manager doesn’t show real interest in my professional development.” And why is that? Could it be that this is a stellar employee, and the manager doesn’t want to lose her, wait months to fill the position and more months to train, and then at some point do it all over again? Bingo. And twice bingo especially in this labor market, where retaining top talent is so challenging.

What to do? Managers should have an interest in seeing their team members advance to bigger roles. It’s good for the business, and it’s good for the manager. Wait, why is that good for the manager? Because the manager can plan for backfilling the job and perhaps even have the incumbent train the replacement. No gap in productivity. People see there is a future with the company. Retention soars. Everyone wins.

It can be a tough conversation to have, but it’s necessary and the manager has an incentive in broaching that difficult conversation. Avoid it and risk losing the employee to another company. I recommend establishing informal quarterly conversations for just this purpose.

2. No one asks me about ideas I have for the business, be it a new product or a better way of working

Who knows the ins and outs of a job better than the person who is doing it all day? That’s obvious, but what’s less so is why top-performing employees don’t get asked for their input.

I find it often has to do with ego. The manager doesn’t want to be seen as having less knowledge of the job than the person doing it; otherwise, the roles would be switched. That’s ego talking.

But by involving these top performers in all aspects of the job, the manager gets to take advantage of insights she’d never realize herself, and the employee gets to feel some more ownership in the work they do. And with more ownership comes more responsibility and, hopefully, growth and retention. Again, everyone wins.

3. No one thanks me for the work I do

Isn’t that what the money is for? Not quite. There’s hard currency (money) and soft currency (gratitude), and we humans need both. Even managers have feelings!

Humans want to feel connected with each other. They want to know that what they do is important and appreciated – at home and at work. Reaching out occasionally to let your top talent know you understand the stress they’ve carried during the pandemic, and that you appreciate the sacrifices they make daily to deliver on your company’s goals, goes a long way in delivering on your company’s goals.

Now, perhaps you aren’t comfortable sharing these kinds of thoughts in a personal way. I suggest you practice – you’ll get more comfortable, and soon it will be part of your regular communication. In fact, you’ll feel good, too. Your employees, many of whom may be working remotely and thus feel somewhat disconnected, will follow your appreciation by being more invested in their work. That means retention and more productivity. Another win/win.

CEOs have an opportunity to reflect on and react to their top performers’ wishes in a meaningful way. However, CEOs know better than most that they need actionable data and information to make a difference, and acquiring that information takes patience and skill. Instead of throwing more money at broad surveys, salaries and benefits, take the time to have real conversations to flesh out what really matters to your workforce.

Do it not only for your top talent’s growth and retention, but also for your company’s image and bottom line. Now that’s a tune we’ll never grow tired of.


Bryan Otte is founder and CEO of HR Plus, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy helping companies win the war for top talent.

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