How to retain high achievers and keep them well-grounded

What to do when you have a high achiever who is raring to go, but is not ready for the big stuff yet

Subroto Bagchi

[Photograph source under Creative Commons]

About two years ago, I hired a young, brilliant employee for my early stage start-up. He's done very well and is one of our rising stars. Even before he joined, he was always in a clear hurry to grow. He constantly wanted to take on bigger responsibilities and so far, he’s been able to deliver. But I sense that his ambition may trip him up. For one, he lacks patience and the will to hunker down on a longish assignment and is constantly looking for a new high. How do I handle this eager beaver?

First of all, please know that you are in good company. This is a familiar story in most start-up organizations that have attracted top talent in the beginning and have gone past the basic survival stage as you clearly have. The difficulty in dealing with the problem (or opportunity) on hand is the inherent complexity of what we call a Type-A personality multiplied by the high-adrenalin atmosphere of a start-up. The two attract each other, depend on each other for success but can very well become irrelevant to each other at a later stage.

The starting point however is to recognize the all-important aspect of top-talent management that most start-ups relegate as “big company stuff”. Nothing can be farther from the truth.

I always maintain that, even as you may be a start-up, in a few matters, always pretend that you are big and do the things that the best of the big guys do; one among those things is a planned process of managing top talent.

In the case of the high-achiever you have just described, these are the things we need to talk about: retention, reward and recognition, succession planning and in some cases, the inevitable attrition that isn’t always a bad thing.

To retain high-achievers, start by recognizing them as individuals. They cannot be aggregated. Their pulse, needs, highs and lows are unique. You, as the leader, would do well to custom design your engagement with them.

Consider regular, formal conversation on their work, engage with them to discuss what may be going right or wrong, how you could help. Very importantly, through this process, let them know that the organization goals don’t get met just because their piece is neatly done. Draw their attention to the larger picture so that they know that the success they are delivering, is not complete without the other pieces of the puzzle coming through. They must own some of that as well. For example, a great sales guy may not realize the criticality of seeing things through to the smooth execution by the delivery team. Sometimes an intellectually superb Organizational Development person doesn’t quite stay with the problem, nor puts skin in the game and get hands dirty.

When you take the time to engage with these over-achievers, they begin to see the 360 degree picture, realize dependencies and then they build respect for the idea of patience.

That said, some of them do have a tremendous capacity for boredom. One way to deal with them is, retention by rotation. Assume an 18-24 months cycle in the present job for such individuals; speak to them about future possibilities; ask them to themselves build a few scenarios for what next but keep reminding them it is not a done deal, that it is all subject to a set of conditions, one of them being the smooth transition to the next person when the time may come. That way, the individual realizes the larger implication of what otherwise is a “me, myself and I” conversation.

Next, let us talk about reward and recognition. For key talent, it is important to design a reward and recognition system that is customized but not ad-hoc. It is important to have instruments for long-term retention but at the same time not overdo the idea of postponed gratification. If the initial public offer (IPO) is five years away, do not think you can keep people motivated entirely based on a stock-option plan. Take expert help from an HR consulting organization and create a system that incentivizes good performance through good behaviour in the mid-term as well. It is very important that you formalize these arrangements. This is one area in which many entrepreneurs, for some strange reason, keep things informal and, in their own head. This is a big reason why top talent loses trust, and often this leads to unnecessary downstream heartburn.

Now comes the issue of succession planning. Whatever you do, there is always the possibility of losing top talent, not always because the Type-A is restless with you; the individual could be restless in his or her own life. What if there is a heart break? What if all is well there but a parent needs medical attention and the employee must move back to Noida? Or what if Alibaba has shown him the magic lamp or Softbank has offered him a job where he would earn ten times  more than what he would make here in the next five years? In all these eventualities, your best insurance is succession planning. You’ve got to know, at any point in time, who next? Don’t do this on the fly, do it in a formal, structured manner. Pretend you are Fortune 500.

Amidst it all, maintain your own equanimity. Sometimes, the young and restless are capable of stumping you with a curveball. Like this one here: one day, I was at my desk when the 20-something, extremely capable guy asked to see me. At the time, he was a regional accountant; he asked me for a one-on-one. As we settled down, he asked me if he could be the chief financial officer (CFO) in the next three years. I liked and admired him a lot but didn’t think he would become a CFO in less than 10 years. I told him the truth.

Why not, he demanded of me. Wasn’t he capable?

It was my turn to ask him a question: at what age does Mother Nature make us capable of having a baby?

Foxed for a moment, he gathered his wits and replied, 13, maybe 14.

Why then, I asked him, do we defer parenthood until in our late 20s? At 13 or 14 one may be biologically capable of reproduction but that does not make the person capable of parenting. At this moment he was capable of having a baby, not raising one. He understood the logic but wasn’t happy with it. He left.

I am sure, now in his early 40s, somewhere out there, he is telling the same story to someone half his age. 

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About the author

Subroto Bagchi
Subroto Bagchi


Odisha Skill Development Authority

Subroto Bagchi is chairman, the Odisha Skill Development Authority.

In 1999, he co-founded Mindtree, one of India’s most admired software services companies. He now serves as the non-executive director of the Mindtree board of directors.

He started as the Chief Operating Officer at Mindtree after its inception. Soon Mindtree was hit by the global economic slowdown and then the events of 9/11. Many early-stage companies collapsed during this time and Bagchi moved to the US and helped the leadership team stay together through the difficult years.

During this time, he articulated a new positioning for Mindtree as the best mid-sized company from India, which later became a reality.

Between 1999 and 2007, as the COO, he was instrumental in articulating Mindtree’s mission, vision and values. He led leadership development, marketing and knowledge management initiatives that differentiated the company from the very beginning. Mindtree’s distinctive physical locations reflect his thought leadership. He is also the face of the company’s outreach beyond business. In 2007, he was part of the apex team that led Mindtree from an idea to IPO.

Post-IPO, Bagchi took on the role of Gardener at Mindtree. In this new role, he focused full-time on the Top-100 leaders at Mindtree to expand their leadership capacity beyond the founding team. In 2010, he was appointed vice chairman to the Board. On April 1, 2012, he assumed the office of Chairman.

Bagchi is a member of the Governing Council of the Software Technology Parks of India. He is a well-known writer, having penned a number of widely read books and columns for newspapers and magazines. In 2011, he has been acclaimed as India’s No.1 bestselling business author.

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