Building a Successful Corporate Culture: Three Strategies for Developing and Retaining High Performers

Employee engagement levels are plummeting according to the recent Gallup poll. And that includes high performers too. The best talent is working with low morale; limited loyalty; and declining patience. They are overworked, underappreciated, unmanaged.  Their resumes are up to date and as you read this, they are entertaining conversations to leave.

The implications of losing high performers are many and not pleasant:

  • If they are client facing, those relationships can be taken with them
  • Ramp up time to replace them is significant
  • Existing goals usually become unmet liabilities on the P&L
  • Morale goes down amongst those that remain
  • Tasks will have to get assigned to people unprepared to accept them and unable to perform at an optimal level

The problem of losing high performers is nothing new. But in the not so distant past an organization’s workforce was spread relatively evenly across a normal bell curve, mitigating the reliance on the high performer. However, today, the left one third of the curve is gone. It has been our-sourced, right-sized and off-shored. The job functions that remain have been piled onto others. Other tasks and the people that manned them simply aren’t coming back.  Reliance on high performers to carry the bulk of the organizational load has never been greater.

So how can an organization retain high performers?

Our Recommendations:

1.      Build an institutional foundation of personal awareness

Research shows that improved self-awareness is at the heart of employee engagement. As we become more aware of our own personality attributes; our own personal style; our strengths/limitations; and our own potential blind spots, we can recognize the same thing in others. We aren’t simply recognizing similar personality attributes in others; rather, we’re much more conscious of their individual attributes.

Awareness, as noted by Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence work, has two dimensions: inner and outer.  Inner awareness is our ability to understand and manage our self and outer awareness is our ability to pay attention to our social environment and managing it appropriately.

Therefore, whether as manager or high performer or account manager or executive, that common language of ‘awareness’ can enable clarity of message; agility in approach; improved transparency; greater trust and respect and improved relationships. We are adapting and connecting to others more effectively because we have learned how to appreciate differences and not appreciating differences is often the reason people do not put the effort into developing meaningful relationships with others.

Ironically, this approach has also been shown to improve the ROI on legacy training programs in which companies have invested so heavily. For example, in one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, this approach nearly tripled their core leading sales metric. It wasn’t a matter of unplugging and redesigning their sales process. It was a matter of developing each individual’s ability to flex and adapt in every single one on one interaction they had.  The reason is that people are able to adapt the ‘skills they have learned in the legacy training programs to the communication needs of the individual. The ‘one size fits all’ approach gets some real tailoring.

2.      Increase  managers’ ability to flex to the communication, management, motivational needs and preferences of their team

If, the cliché is true (people join companies and leave managers), then consistently improve manager’s ability to possess and demonstrate the agility necessary to adapt to the communication needs and preferences of their team. Offer them the tools and training that increases their ability to pay closer attention to the uniqueness of each team member.

For example:

  • Because they have so much influence over their team, invest in your key managers strategically because investing a dollar in them will result in multiple dollars returned through their team.
  • Help them understand that your performance review model is just that: it’s a model. It has to be adapted to the point of view of the employee on the other side of the table. Show them that they can make that transition by connecting to needs, attributes and experiences of the employee.
  • Help them understand that the sales process you’ve adopted is effective only to the degree that it truly connects with how the customer prefers to buy. The sales manager needs to model and show her team the importance of adapting the sales model to the various buying styles of each customer. For example, if the sales person is able to notice that their client thinks in a linear fashion and asks questions that require answers backed up by data, then a proposal to be submitted ought to be well organized, provide significant detail and be well proofed for errors, omissions etc.

3.      Create a climate of success

There is a difference between winning and success. Winning requires variables outside of our control to reach the goal, such as the customer needs to say yes to a proposal that we make.  Success is different.  Success is the expression of doing our best and being able to be proud about how we behaved, whether we win or lose. Both dimensions are necessary in business, but emphasizing winning at any cost or just doing your best without a focus on achievement will not produce high performance.  Research has shown that high performance whether in sports or business requires the integration of both.

Managers’ ability to tap into the intrinsic motivations that exist in their team members is crucial to create this climate of success.  Daniel Pink’s argues in his bestselling book, Drive, that we are looking for three elements in our work environment:

  • Autonomy: People want to have control over their work.
  • Mastery: People want to get better at what they do.
  • Purpose: People want to be part of something that is bigger than they are.

These elements all relate to individual engagement and all tap into the psychological needs we have as human beings. The more managers can bring these elements to life for their team and their high performers, the more a climate of success will exist.

Final Thoughts:

Leaders create the work environment through the messages they send.  And most of the messages are sent through what they actually do.  So, when they take the time to pay attention to their high performers, supporting and engaging them, the leverage is huge. Not paying attention can create the situation like the answer given by a character from the Hemingway novel The Sun Also Rises. When asked “How did you go bankrupt?” the character answers, “Gradually, then suddenly.”

Disengagement doesn’t happen overnight either.  Skilled leaders pay attention. They spend time on the dance floor and they also maintain a view from above. They stay focused on business results and superb execution, team and organizational health and individual engagement.  Great leaders realize that developing and retaining high performers (and high standards of performance from all employees) is absolutely critical for long term success.

About the authors:

Rick Kneuven and Don Johnson are Directors of Business Development for Insights Learning & Development, a global people development organization. Insights works with clients by helping them improve the effectiveness of their people and the performance of the organization.  Their unique programs are simple, yet deeply insightful, providing immediate impact and offering endless possibilities for positive, lasting change.

Reach Rick or Don at: and

About Don Johnson

Don Johnson, the Founder and President of the Integria Group, LLC, has over 25 years of experience in business management, leadership, sales and consulting in the performance improvement industry. He founded the Integria Group after being a Principal Consultant with Axialent. He has worked extensively with executives at Google, YouTube, Yahoo! AXA USA, Crowe Horwath, The Jamaican Ministry of Defense, The United States Federal Court System and Allinial Global helping them develop their leadership skills and their business effectiveness. Don was formerly the US Director of Sales for Insights for 5 years helping lead the business to record growth and also worked at Achieve Global, a leading international training and consulting firm, holding many positions, including Regional Director and later Regional Vice President. For five years, he managed a 30-person, $15 million business unit, leading his organization through the post-merger integration of three consulting companies. After completing his undergraduate degree from Ohio Wesleyan University in English Literature, Don started his career at Élan Vital, an international non-profit organization that promotes the work of Prem Rawat. A member of the Élan Vital management team from a young age, Don was appointed President of the corporation in 1980 and held the position for four years. He is a competitive tennis player, plays guitar and writes and records music. He lives in Tayport, Scotland, a small village on the North Sea.
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