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Have you been exploring new ideas on how to retain top talent? Try having “stay” conversations.

Immediately following a merger, acquisition, or reduction in force announcement, smart company leaders turn their attention to the remaining employees. In all-hands meetings and 1:1 conversations, executives, HR leaders, and managers all work to convey to those employees how much they’re valued. They listen, answer questions, and strive to share the vision of a new future together – where each employee plays an important role in the company’s success. 

We’ve all come to expect these “stay” conversations after disruptive events. But what if we did them at other times, too? 2020 has been a stark reminder of the value of our employees. Inspired to explore how to retain top talent, some companies are experimenting with stay conversations that can happen at any time (not just the disruptive ones).  

The Beauty of a Stay Conversation

Any organization can do it. At any time. You don’t need a separate budget. Either in-person or virtual meetings will work. In the category of “how to retain employees without money,” a stay conversation is a low cost/high benefit activity. It’s one more opportunity for managers to connect 1:1 with their direct reports. What’s different is that these conversations are designed for listening, encouraging, and generally focusing on what’s on the employee’s mind – not on the manager’s task list. The underlying message is, “We understand that you have a choice about where to work. We want you to choose to stay with us.”

When you meet with employees for a stay conversation, take the opportunity to provide a brief update on company news and developments. That information will provide a backdrop for bringing each person’s role and responsibilities into alignment with company priorities. Christine Dagenais, CEO of leadership development and coaching firm Brightwire, recommends setting the right tone from the start: 

  • Explain that the conversation is a time to connect and be open with one another
  • Take notes to demonstrate and reinforce your active listening 
  • Ask questions that encourage employees to share their views and aspirations, to clarify how their contributions align with the company’s future, and to ask for additional support, if needed.  

By engaging 1:1 with high-potential employees and top talent, you play an essential role in building employee confidence, engagement, and productivity. 

Other Creative Ways to Retain Employees

When 15 members of the Forbes Business Council weighed in on effective ways to improve talent retention, many of the recommendations (share your company vision, seek regular feedback, have consistent check-ins, show them that they are valued and heard, practice deep listening) line up beautifully with the practice of stay conversations. They also recommend these creative ways to retain employees:

  • Shake Up the Resignation Process: One law firm encourages resigning employees to try something new – and then to stay in touch through an active alumni program. The paradoxical result? Many of those who resign later return to the firm, with skills and experience that add to their later contributions.
  • Empower Them and Have Trust: One leader urges piling on the responsibility to those most promising employees. It can be a vote of confidence that stretches employees and pushes them to grow. “Promote them to the point that they leave, or they thrive,” suggests Chris J. “Mohawk” Reed, from Black Marketing.
  • Invest in their Development: This one (almost) goes without saying. But the value of investing in the future of employees cannot be understated. 
  • Provide Equity to Key Employees: “When employees are co-owners, it changes their mindset from ‘the company has a challenge’ to ‘we have a challenge’,” says Dylan Taylor, of Voyager Space Holdings. 
  • Prioritize Mental Safety and Wellness: We touched on wellness programs earlier this year. But a culture of mental wellness helps employees feel safe and connected every year. 

We add one more to this list on how to retain top talent: Flexible Career Paths. Not every top performer is meant to be a leader. Flexible career paths encourage employees to contribute and thrive in a variety of roles, aligning their skill and competency development with company needs and goals to ensure that their work is meaningful and valuable. 

Talent Retention is for Every Day

In this recent Entrepreneur article, Stu Sjouwerman, CEO of KnowBe4, reminds us that, “The right person is more than a walking bag of skills. They’re also happy. Happy people are easy to work with. Their can-do attitude is infectious, and they inspire other people to figure out how to make everything work.”

Surely, figuring out how to keep your top talent is bigger than preserving the skills and competencies your organization needs. You’re building and preserving a positive, collaborative culture that is committed to the company’s success. Employee retention has to be part of everyday life at work. It’s ongoing conversations and activities that are built into the fabric of your culture. 

So, don’t wait for a company acquisition or corporate downsizing to spur action. A mad scramble to keep employees following a disruption is a lot of work for a big gamble. If the gesture is just that – a short-term show to convince that you care – your top employees will figure that out pretty quickly and leave anyway.  

Start your stay conversations now, so your top performers will know they’re valued. Your managers will build their skills and trust with their teams. Then, when disruptions do occur, your top employees will be first in line to sign up for whatever’s next – eager to lead by their example. Are you experimenting with other ideas on how to retain top talent? We’d love to hear about it! Please comment below.

If you’re developing talent retention programs that tie the strategic importance of job roles to key performance metrics, read our Energizing Performance Through Competency Management white paper to learn how a competency management program can help. Or contact us to find out how Avilar’s WebMentor Skills™ can keep top performers and their managers aligned on essential skills and competencies for the next steps.