Will Your Company Lose Its Top Performers?

Your best people, having achieved a level of mastery, are in greatest danger of entering the zone where complacency erodes productivity—and that's when they start to seriously consider jumping ship. Here's how to re-engage them.

Talent retention is a critical component of organizational growth, and with prominent headlines about the “Great Resignation,” this concern is top of mind for many leaders. How can you know if your top performers are considering a new opportunity? More importantly, how can you persuade them to stay?

While zero turnover is unrealistic and undesirable, there is one key strategy to retain your top performers: build a culture that celebrates growth and disruption. People are oriented toward growth and the opportunity to learn, and too often companies’ best, brightest and most experienced employees leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere because development in their present situation has plateaued.

The S Curve of Learning is a simple but powerful retention tool that can support leadership teams. This model can be used organization-wide to understand growth patterns and pinpoint where team members perceive themselves to be in their learning journey. It provides a shared language for fruitful discussions about these perceptions and critical information about the support individuals need from leadership. It offers an early warning indicator when an employee needs a new challenge to remain engaged before they find that opportunity somewhere else.

The S Curve is characterized by three phases that help us understand the development of and shifts in a career. When you start something new, you are at the bottom of the S Curve—the launch point. There’s a lot to learn. You’re growing, but there is so much new information that it’s like a traffic jam in your brain. Growth can feel slow. With increasing experience, you accelerate into the sweet spot of competence and confidence. This is the exciting part of the curve where the level of challenge is optimal, neither too easy nor too hard. Growth feels fast and exhilarating. Finally, you move to the high end of the S Curve in mastery. Growth levels out again as ease displaces effort, boredom replaces excitement, and stagnation supplants engagement. Your brain has gone into cruise control. It’s time to try something new.

There are almost certainly people on your team who are at mastery. They are competent and productive. They’ve become a go-to person, willing and able to do whatever is asked. Your team may have become accustomed to an outsized return on this stellar individual. Why would you push them to do something different? We need our top performers right where they are, where they do the most good for the organization. Right?

It’s not that simple. In mastery, the plateau becomes a precipice, a danger zone where complacency erodes productivity. This is where a highly effective employee seriously considers what’s next and begins to plan their exit. If you, the leader, are not prepared to help them jump to a new curve within their current role, or elsewhere within the company, you risk talent loss.

Planning for the next growth opportunity can’t wait until an employee has reached the top of the curve. Their next mountain to climb needs to be identified before they’ve disengaged. “What’s next?” conversations should begin early and occur often. You may think it’s a direct manager’s job to oversee talent development, or that an employee should proactively advocate for a jump to a new curve when it’s time. They need to be involved, of course, but it’s more difficult for people to ask for new opportunities than you might think. It is your job to create an environment that celebrates and incentivizes the desire to learn something new. Is the top of the S Curve where individuals in your organization decide to leave because they have nothing left to learn? Or, is it a launching pad to greater contribution?

How can you harness the power of continually growing your top talent?

Identify a new learning curve

Talk openly about the S Curve model. Discuss the idea that when mastery is reached, employees will be on the brink of a new learning curve. Work with managers to identify possible next steps for high-performing individuals. Consider their goals and the type of challenges that will keep them innovating and productive. Whether it’s a new project or team configuration that expands their skill set, tapping into a larger purpose, or a new role entirely, it must answer their need to keep learning, growing, and expanding their influence.

Ensure you have leaders throughout the organization willing and able to help team members leap from one learning curve to the next. In return, pay equal attention and care to the learning curves of those leaders.

Applaud their achievements

Give employees in mastery an opportunity to bask in their accomplishments. Too often we quickly turn our attention to the next thing that needs to be done. This overshadows the employee’s successes in their role and makes them feel insignificant. Consider a student’s graduation from college; we take time to celebrate and honor their achievements. How can you do that for your top performers?

Deliver on the jump

You have verbally made growth a company priority; follow through is essential.

Facilitating an excellent employee’s jump to a new curve can feel dangerous. Your leaders are asked to risk a loss of productivity by creating holes in their teams that have been filled by star performers. The truth is that growth is inevitable. Your talent will eventually leap to a new curve somewhere, and if your organization doesn’t help them, they will either stagnate in place or leave for the chance to pursue new opportunities.

To avoid losing your most competent people–in this year’s Great Resignation, or anytime–evaluate how you can create a company culture that encourages, and even insists, on jumping the curve.


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