How to Attract, Develop and Retain High-Performing Talent

By Lisa Brown Alexander
In July 7, 2016

According to Harvard Business Review, a high performer can deliver 400 percent more productivity than the average performer. High performers work efficiently and think strategically. They’re motivated, passionate and dedicated. They show promising potential to take on new roles, assume more responsibility, and act as leaders.

How can you recognize a high performer at your nonprofit? One way is by looking for these seven key traits:

  1. A positive attitude and energy: brings vitality and vigor to the job that rubs off on those they work with
  2. Steadfast courage and confidence: works with a sense of self-assuredness and poise, especially in areas of personal effectiveness
  3. Intense discipline: self-propelled and capable of creating their own “rules” and following a logical structure
  4. Inspiring initiative: enthusiastic, curious and innovative without requiring a lot of guidance or direction
  5. High emotional intelligence: has the ability to adjust behavior and performance based on the situation at hand and other people’s emotions, personalities or working style in order to advance work
  6. A strong sense of purpose: understands their role, why they were hired, what needs to be done and the bigger picture or mission their work serves
  7. An aura of trust: trustworthy, as proven by consistent effort and delivery, and also trusts others to contribute and get things done

Bottom line: These are the people you want on your leadership team and your staff because they get things done and move your mission forward.

If you want to dramatically boost your organization’s productivity—and in turn, your impact—you need high performers on board, which involves being intentional about attracting, developing and retaining top talent at every level.

With the hectic pace of our days, it’s easy to simply let things happen or only take action when issues pop up, but that won’t fuel progress or long-term success. If you want to create a high-performing organization full of high-performing talent, you have to start with a plan. Crafting an intentional strategy for recruiting, professional development and retention will ensure your organization and its people are performing at their highest level.

How do you do that? First, it’s important to understand two things: what a high-performing organization looks like and what high-performing talent want.

High-performing organizations have five things in common:

  • High-performing leadership: A standard for performance starts at the top. High-performing leaders seek out high-performing talent because they see the value in finding and nurturing the right people. They build leaders at every level, take risks and are not threatened by smart people. They understand the power of aligning people with passion and skills.
  • Intentional design/structure: An intentional structure is critical to achieving a high level of performance. Work is aligned with strategic priorities, and activities that don’t provide value are eliminated. Accountabilities, decision rights and collaboration are defined, while individual skills match roles and business needs.
  • A value on people: Talent management is an organizational priority and not an after-thought. The employer brand is an asset that is proactively managed, and HR is a strategic business partner, crucial to furthering the mission and strategic objectives. Resources for attracting, developing and retaining talent are made available, and roles are filled with qualified talent.
  • An emphasis on change management: High-performing organizations don’t settle for the status quo; they are evolutionary in their approach to programs and people. Flexibility and adaptability are expected, valued and measured, while processes and procedures act as guides, not constraints.
  • Dynamic culture and engagement: Culture is essential and purposeful, not incidental. In a high-performing environment, culture is closely managed to maximize talent, cultivate engagement and foster organizational and individual effectiveness. Elements of workplace culture that are toxic are addressed and the responses communicated. Culture is a living thing that evolves with changes in leadership, mission and priorities.

Building job roles and a workplace culture that are appealing to high performers starts with an awareness of what these key contributors want. In order to thrive, they look for autonomy,  challenge, an enabling culture, input and feedback, opportunities to connect with other high performers and measurable achievement and results.

Keep these desirable attributes in mind when mapping out a plan for attracting, developing and retaining high-performers. The three activities—attract, develop, retain—work hand-in-hand and should have equal importance. If you’re not focusing on one or two of them enough, the other areas will suffer too.

Let’s break down each part and take a closer look at best practices:

Attracting talent

Start with strategy: Align your talent sourcing with your organizational strategy. This means that the talent you’re recruiting should match your business needs and your strategic objectives. These are the people who will provide the expertise and skills needed to move your mission forward. Create a high performance talent model that pinpoints the top traits and qualities you’re looking for in talent and that may already exist within your organization. (When looking to attract high performers, we recommend focusing on these four of the seven traits outlined above: initiative, attitude and energy, courage and confidence and emotional intelligence.) Then be consistent in using that model to develop interview questions, screen candidates and make hiring decisions.

To attract high performers, build and promote your employer “brand.” Focus on creating a strong “EVP” (employer value proposition)—all those aspects like pay and benefits, flexible working arrangements, role/task diversity, professional development (more on that in a bit!), organizational reputation and culture. Think about what high-performing talent want and need—and demonstrate that you can provide those things in order to attract A-players to your organization.

Developing talent

When it’s done right, talent development will provide a strong return on investment. Make a business case for talent development investments to your board and funders. Commit time and resources to fostering high-performing leaders, as well as junior and direct services staff. To make development ongoing, it’s important to provide continuous learning opportunities and to enable self-learning.

High-performers want to be challenged and recognized, so give them “stretch” goals, reward their initiative, offer regular feedback (both positive and constructive) and acknowledge their achievements.

Retaining talent

The key to retaining talent? Listen, understand, act, repeat! Take an in-depth look at your culture and how it impacts high performers, and then address any barriers to effectiveness. This is a crucial time to get out of the way and directly engage high performers in developing solutions. They are the present and future of your organization, so they should have a say in what’s working and what’s not, as well as what types of changes would be beneficial.

Talent is the driving force of our organizations, and talent management requires an investment of time, effort and money. Think about it: At what level is your organization performing right now? Where are you headed in the future? When it comes to attracting, developing and retaining talent, are you keeping high performers in mind?

When talent is performing at the highest level, an organization amplifies its impact. We urge you to invest in talent—because high-performing organizations made up of high-performing talent are truly unstoppable.

Lisa is the President and CEO of Nonprofit HR. Under her direction, Nonprofit HR has served some of the most prominent organizations in the country, including Amnesty International, Independent Sector and NeighborWorks America. With more than two decades of human resource management experience working with nonprofits and for-profit organizations, Lisa and her firm have proven that better HR can play an integral role in nonprofit success. Nonprofits have benefited from her wealth of knowledge and experience to make their people-driven initiatives successful. She believes if an organization can strengthen its internal HR capacity, it can better serve the community and those in need. Lisa brings these beliefs to every engagement, and inspires nonprofit leaders to strengthen their most important asset: their people. Lisa is a graduate of Howard University in Washington D.C., a member of the Society for Human Resources Management and serves on the board of directors of Mentoring to Manhood, the Prince Georges Cultural Arts Foundation and is an advisory member of the Talent Philanthropy Project.

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