How to Retain High Performing Employees

Finding and hiring great talent is vital to every organization. But Tara Finlay of Cornerstone Talent explains that understanding behaviors and identifying the engagement and reward strategies that support happiness and loyalty among workers is paramount. Let’s take a closer look.

February 28, 2018 – A strong focus on employee retention strategies is vital for any company that wants to keep high-performers engaged, motivated and loyal. This means taking time to understand people and their behaviors as well as identifying the engagement and reward strategies that will promote their happiness and loyalty, says Tara Finlay, co-founder of executive search firm Cornerstone Talent.

“Ideally this is happening at a company level, but every leader has a role to play in the engagement of their teams,” said Ms. Finlay.

It is often said that when employees depart from a company they are leaving their managers rather than the organization. With that in mind, what can you do as an individual to help retain your top performers?

“Managers play a key role in shaping the culture of the organization,” said Ms. Finlay. “Great managers build and develop engaged, high performing teams around them. It is essential to fully understand the impact your style and behaviors have on your team, colleagues and peers. Leaders must take ownership of the engagement of their teams, look at each person individually, understand their strong points and their developmental and motivational needs and respect diversity. Lead by example and model the behaviors that you want to embed into your culture.”

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Compensation is important to all employees, but when looking at retaining your best employees, it is important to go beyond basic expectations and focus on differentiating your company and making it a place people want to be, said Ms. Finlay. What is important when focusing on the retention of your best employees?

Understanding Expectations

“It sounds obvious, but every individual performs best when they clearly understand what is expected of them,” said Ms. Finlay. “What may not be so obvious to you as a manager is that often employees do not have the clarity that they need.”

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Gallup research from 2017 shows that only one in two employees are confident that they know what is expected of them when they go to work every day. “Take the time to step into the shoes of each member of your team and walk around in them,” said Ms. Finlay. Can you see the understanding and alignment of each individual to your expectations? Are you always clear about how you articulate what you expect and what is required? Don’t make assumptions, she said. It never hurts to seek confirmation that people are fully aware of what is expected of them. This in turn increases their happiness and their chances of success.

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“When people believe in their company’s purpose and can clearly articulate how their role connects to that purpose, they achieve better results,” said Ms. Finlay. “As a manager, you can have a huge influence on making sure your team have a purpose. Engage them in discussions about the mission and vision of the company, and the role that your function plays in achieving that. Drive passion and energy to align team goals to corporate goals; help them draw a line of sight between their work and the client so they can see the impact and importance of their role.”


Research by the Great Place to Work Institute shows that trust between managers and employees is the main defining characteristic of the very best workplaces. Leaders should place high value on understanding how to create a high-trust culture.

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“How managers behave goes a long way,” said Ms. Finlay. “Be honest, all the time. Delivering bad news or dealing with a difficult situation can be uncomfortable but employees deserve honesty and managers gain respect and build trust by being open and transparent. Treat employees as individuals by seeking their input and showing humility. Asking for suggestions on how things can be improved or how you can better support them, then following up and taking action instills trust and loyalty.


Recognition can be given in many ways, from a sincere thank you to a monetary award and everything in between. “What is key today is considering what types of recognition will drive the greatest engagement and motivation from your high performing staff,” said Ms. Finlay. “In an evolving business environment, it is more important than ever to connect with the workforce in a way that is meaningful to them and be creative in how we reward people.”

Ms. Finlay points to a psychological theory known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which places esteem and self-actualization at the top of an illustrated pyramid. The theory states that all humans need to feel respected; esteem represents the human desire to be accepted and valued by others. Self-actualization is described as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be.

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“If employees believe in themselves and believe that others have confidence in them, they will be more engaged and productive,” said Ms. Finlay. “Providing on-going feedback and sincere gratitude to people will support this. Supporting self-actualization in the workplace goes beyond ordinary recognition practices and moves into providing opportunity and support for individuals to reach their true potential.”

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Ask yourself whether you connect with your team to understand what will enhance their working lives and the environment, said Ms. Finlay. Do you know what motivates your employees, she asked. Do you know what they want to achieve and understand how you and the organization can support that? A manager who understands their team will seek out recognition by means of development opportunities, she said. This could be a project, mentorship or an opportunity to mentor others.

Achieving Improved Retention

Employee retention strategies can be broad, said Ms. Finlay, but building foundations for success starts with every manager within an organization:

  • Ensure every employee understands what is expected of them. Help them to have a purpose aligned with the company that they can be passionate about every day.
  • Build a trust culture, modelling the behaviors you expect. Be honest, show humility and support “responsible freedom.”
  • Treat every employee as an individual. Understand what motivates employees and what they want to achieve. Seek ways to support their needs to create opportunity for the employee and the organization.
  • Be forthcoming with recognition and drive a culture where everybody is encouraged to recognize others.
  • Drive recognition strategies that are meaningful to employees and drive engagement

“As you think about how to retain your best employees, always consider the impact that you have first,” said Ms. Finlay. “Your behavior, communication style and approach to your team will impact the behaviors that they display. When you consider the broader organization, are there employee retention strategies that would benefit the business? Use your influence to put this on the company’s agenda and build awareness of the importance of retention to the success of the organization.”

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Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Will Schatz, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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