In my over 15 years as a leadership coach and consultant, concern about “winning the war for talent” has been a constant. Except in the depths of the 2008-2009 recession, business leaders have been concerned about how to identify, attract, and retain top talent.

Now at the beginning of a new decade, when employment figures are at a high, high-potential employees have plenty of options to choose from. The war for talent is a hot topic once again.

Winning the war for talent starts with clear assessment on both sides

The first step in winning the war is identifying top candidates for open roles. That means clearly defining the skills and abilities that each role requires. It means having an excellent process for finding candidates, including broadening the scope of your search to ensure that highly qualified, diverse candidates are on your roster. And winning also requires a robust, objective assessment process to determine which candidates are most likely to succeed and excel in each role.

Of course, while the employer is sizing up potential hires, the candidates are also evaluating the employer. Top candidates will look at traditional measures like salary, benefits, and vacation. In addition, they will be assessing the workplace culture, opportunities for advancement, and the degree to which the workplace is attuned to the needs of individual employees.

With luck, the employer and the candidate will make a good match. But the war for talent doesn’t end there. It’s important to set new hires up for success and win their loyalty through a well-designed onboarding program. It is shocking to me how much money businesses will spend on the search process and then neglect the equally important integration of new employees.

How to retain the talent you fought to win

This December, I was pleased to facilitate a thoughtful and lively conversation at the Executives’ Club of Chicago on talent retention best practices. The discussion featured 12 experts, most of whom were senior leaders in human capital. Here are the top takeaways:

Onboarding talent

  1. In a fast-growth company, onboard new employees quickly so they can hit the ground running.
  2. When a company has multiple locations, make sure the onboarding process is consistent across different offices. Employees make comparisons and it looks bad if new employees at one location are getting more attention than at others.
  3. Communicate to new people, “OMG, we are so glad you are here!” I still remember when one new boss said to all of us, “You are the cream of the crop and we are thrilled to have you here.” It was profoundly motivating and I have never forgotten it.
  4. Arrange conversations, both formal and informal, between senior leaders and new hires.
  5. Create a buddy system that pairs new hires with seasoned employees.
  6. Have things ready for new people, so their arrival is seamless. It will reduce stress and make a great first impression.
  7. Remember that onboarding takes more than 90 days, especially for senior roles. When I work with companies to help them integrate new executives, we create a year-long integration program. It is often the second 90 days that determine whether the leader will succeed or not. 

Retaining top talent

  1. Gather and share client feedback. It is gratifying to hear that a client has praised your work.
  2. Remember and mark people’s birthdays and anniversaries.
  3. If you want to retain top talent for a long time, recognize that their needs for scheduling will probably change over the years. Offer flexibility.
  4. Foster feedback across teams.
  5. Provide exposure to senior leaders and other teams for highly-talented employees. It’s a great way to assess their abilities to grow and keep them motivated.
  6. Promote and pay people on the basis of results.
  7. In Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, he identifies three additional keys to keeping employees engaged, regardless of their rank in the company:
  8. My boss knows who I am as a person.
  9. I understand how my job contributes to the success of the organization.
  10. I have a clear way to measure how well I am performing.

Lencioni’s recommendations are for all employees, but they are especially important for top talent.

I still sometimes meet old-school business leaders whose attitude is that their employees should just be grateful to have a job. These leaders are out of date and they’re losing the war for talent. If you want to attract and retain the best people (and who doesn’t?), you could do worse than to adopt the recommendations from my roundtable of human resource leaders.  

If you’d like to know more about how to win top talent and keep them — contact us at

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