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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Keeping a 'LeBron James' on your team

Even if you're not watching the NBA playoffs, you are probably familiar with the name LeBron James.

Considered to be one of the best professional basketball players in the world, his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, are one of the favourites to win the playoffs, in large part because of him. Recently, he earned his second consecutive NBA most valuable player award. No wonder Cleveland fans live in almost constant fear that he'll leave for another team.

Whether or not it's apparent, business leaders have something in common with the Cavaliers: You have a LeBron, a go-to employee without whom your team's performance would suffer -- and you may be in danger of having that person walk out the door someday soon.

If your high-performer has already left, you have three big worries. Will your team's performance immediately decline? Will your short-term gap become a long-term gap because the recruiting process takes so long? And even if you're recruiting promising new talent, can you be sure you've really found another superstar? None of those questions have easy answers.

Your best strategy is to retain your superstars in the first place.

While the Cavaliers can throw a lot of money at LeBron, business leaders don't have endless amounts of cash to keep their best employees. In truth, however, high-performers like LeBron are not always looking for the big payday. They're looking for an opportunity to win. And most key employees, in particular, are looking for an opportunity to make a difference.

Here are some real-world techniques for retaining your high-performers without NBA-level salaries:

Shine the limelight: Use the annual performance-review process -- and every other opportunity you can find -- to reinforce and celebrate your high-performers' best behaviours. Make sure they know they are appreciated, that their success means success for the whole team. Of course even the best players still need a coach, and that means providing honest, specific actionable feedback.

Define that goal: Don't make assumptions about what motivates your best-performing employees. Instead, ask them directly. One employee might be longing for a pay increase, while another has their eye on a key promotion. Another may simply want to feel more tangibly the impact of the programmes they are working on. You won't know until you ask -- and make sure you ask before it's too late.

Use what you have: Give bonuses. Give more responsibility. Give opportunities for travel or training. Whatever tools for professional growth you have at your disposal, offer them to your high performer. Even something as simple as a rotational assignment can help challenge and motivate.

Keep it real: Yes, you're asking your superstar to share their highest career aspirations, and you're doing your best to fulfil those, but never make promises you can't keep. LeBron may want to take the championships, but no coach can guarantee a win. Be honest about what you can and can't offer; they will respect the candour.