How to Retain Talented Employees

UPDATED: July 17, 2014
PUBLISHED: July 17, 2014

In 1997 I decided to move my organizations from San Diego to Atlanta. I knew the relocation would mean saying goodbye to some great friends and colleagues on these teams. I wondered: How many would stay in a city they loved and how many would pick up their lives to make the move with the rest of us?

You can imagine my delight when more than 60 people came with us. Though I have always known the importance of hiring the right people, in that moment I realized how special my people were, how committed they were to our vision and how fortunate I was that they wanted to stick with us even when it wasn’t convenient.

Every day I am grateful for the people who work alongside me, some of whom have been with me for decades. The quest for the ideal team is the biggest, most important task you’ll face as a leader. Your ability to find, develop and retain the best people is the single greatest factor in determining your success.

No pressure, right?

I’m always on the lookout for winners. I’m always excited to introduce talented newcomers to my team, but I hold onto them only loosely. Here’s why: I want to work with people who want to work with me. I’m fortunate that many have chosen to stay.

How do you create an atmosphere that makes those top performers want to remain by your side? How do you keep them from being lured away by the competition or opportunities elsewhere? The key to keeping talented people is to create a culture that’s hard to walk away from. Here’s what you need to do:

1. Know your team. My greatest pleasures in life come from three things: great food, great friends and great conversations. Luckily the people I work with are also some of my closest friends. As a result my work and play blend seamlessly. That’s important because relationships matter. People don’t leave companies; they leave people.

They also stay for people. The time you invest in creating personal connections with your team pays dividends in the long run.

2. Coach for improvement. Your top performers are probably just like you—always striving to advance. Don’t just be their boss. Be their coach. Become the guiding force pushing them to excel.

I learned this from the very best, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, whose mentorship changed my approach to leadership. He told me that he showed up for practice every day with one question: “How can I make my team better?” This single-minded emphasis on improvement led him to the kind of record-breaking success (10 NCAA Championships) that is not only rare, but unlikely to be replicated.

Also consider the philosophy of D. Michael Abrashoff, former captain of the Navy destroyer USS Benfold. Abrashoff started his command of this ship—plagued by low morale and poor evaluations—by asking every crew member the same question: “It’s your ship—how would you fix it?”

“Every leader needs big ears and zero tolerance for stereotypes,” he states in his book, It’s Your Ship. When you value every person regardless of their position, you receive more feedback at all levels of the organization. And when individual team members know they have a voice, they’ll enjoy their work more.

3. Make fun a priority. At the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, you can see fishmongers tossing salmon, performing tricks with halibut—even inviting customers to smooch the fish. They generally have a grand old time at a place normally not associated with entertainment. But “fun” is an essential part of the market’s culture. Each fishmonger, in the words of the English philosopher and minister L.P. Jacks, “draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play.” As a result, the employees and the customers are happy.

That’s the kind of atmosphere I’ve worked to create at my companies, too. I love to have fun. I laugh a lot. In the business world, I think, leaders are too reluctant to relax around their teams. Perhaps they feel letting their hair down would detract from their authority.

That fear has never crossed my mind. Instead, I intentionally create experiences for my team so we can have fun together. I believe that is one of the reasons we work so well together, and a reason why the founders of Pike Place succeeded in their one, seemingly far-fetched goal: to be world famous!

4. Focus on values. People can quit a job, but they find it hard to quit a cause. People want to know that what they do every day matters. That’s why, when assembling a team, I look for people’s values—not just their potential and skill. If you create a team based on shared collective principles, it is easier to keep everyone engaged and aligned.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has done just that. He’s made “happiness” the central theme of his company. He says, “Happiness is about being able to combine pleasure, passion and purpose in one’s personal life.”

Companies today face tight competition for the top job candidates. Hsieh has created a culture that focuses on shared values and sustaining an enjoyable workplace. As a result Zappos has far more talented applicants than they have positions to fill. What a great problem to have.

As you make your workplace irresistible to job seekers and too good to leave once they’re in the door, remember those four guiding principles. I hope you don’t have to make a cross-country move like I  did, but I do hope your crew feels the same sense of loyalty to you because of the opportunities you offer, the respect you show them, and the good times you have together.

Embrace both the obvious and nuanced aspects of on-the-job contentment to help your company thrive. Learn the formula for happy employees.

Jessica Krampe is the digital managing editor for A graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, Jessica has worked for news, entertainment, business and lifestyle publications. Outside of the daily grind, she enjoys happy hours, live music and traveling.