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How Governments Can Hold on to Their Top Performers

The best public workers are looking for a lot more than good pay. There's plenty that can be done to keep them engaged and productive.

As they work to build the workforces essential to executing their missions, government leaders need to recognize that they are competing with the private sector for talent as never before and that they face significant challenges in attracting and -- perhaps even more important -- retaining their best people.

Conventional wisdom says that employees will leave if they are dissatisfied but that money will make them stay. That greatly oversimplifies the issue. People stay in a job or leave it for a range of reasons. Top performers want to be well compensated, of course, but they are seeking other kinds of satisfaction, primarily related to their learning, growth and opportunities to make a positive difference.

That's one reason that the idea that high employee turnover is always bad and low turnover is always good should be discarded. In tracking turnover in your organization, you should take things a step further by measuring "regrettable" turnover -- departing employees who you would prefer to keep. Exit interviews are important, but you also should do "retention interviews." Meet with the employees you consider your "climbers" or "thoroughbreds" and ask them one question: "What more can we do as an organization to challenge you?" Most likely you will discover that the following factors are the core of what these top performers are seeking:

Relationships: Gallup has conducted extensive research on employee engagement, and a key finding is this: "People go to work for organizations, but they leave their manager and supervisor." No single factor is more important than the relationship between an employee and his or her supervisor. If employees report that their managers' expectations are unclear or that their managers provide inadequate equipment, materials or other resources, watch out.

Characteristics of the organization: Creating a healthy workplace culture, one based on an inspirational set of organizational values that employees at all levels aspire to model, is essential for retaining top employees, as are management practices that emphasize shared decision-making. The workplace culture is instrumental for leveraging the best performers' initiative and participation.

Job design: High performers want and expect more than to simply complete the tasks that make up their job descriptions. They see their work responsibilities not merely as a job but as a role. When they perceive that they don't have the opportunities to do what they do best, they start to consider their next career stop.

Career development: Opportunities for upward mobility are only a piece of the puzzle to retaining top performers. Equally important are the investments organizations make in learning and training, mentoring and succession planning. Rotating job assignments, "acting" roles and shadowing are attractive to top performers who want to stretch themselves.

Compensation: Pay and benefits must be competitive, but awarding across-the-board pay raises to employees who do not perform well infuriates the top performers. Pay for performance may sound good in concept but in application is typically fraught with problems; distinguishing performance from one employee to another remains a challenge that needs to be overcome in government. But not all rewards are economic. Formal and informal employee-recognition efforts should focus on validating top performers for their contributions.

None of this is easy. But governmental organizations whose leaders are deliberate about retaining their best people -- those who have a passion for public service, are driven to have an impact and are relentless in their pursuit of professional growth -- are well positioned to chalk up victories in the talent wars.

Pamela Tate is the president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
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