Over the next five years, the gap between available top talent and the job opportunities for that level of talent will widen to a critical mass. Can you imagine:

  • A national bank offering a $10,000 signing bonus to a part-time frontline employee who only has to work fifteen hours a week and last a year.

  • A company hiring top talent even when they will have no openings for them for at least eight weeks.

  • A company that no longer just hires people, but employs recruiters around the country for entry-level positions.

Every one of those hiring strategies is presently happening — and that's just for the front-line positions. Imagine the incentives being used to lure seasoned top-level executives with solid resumes. This battle to employ the best talent is only going to get worse. The days of interchangeable and replaceable employees are long past.

Knowing how hard it is to find great new employees, organizations are realizing the best employee is often the one you already have. Just as it's easier to retain your existing customer base (and deepen their loyalty and spending with you) than to attract new consumers, keeping the workforce already in place (and expanding their skills and abilities) makes more economic sense than the “churn 'em and burn 'em” approach many companies used in the past. Companies are now creating retention programs to hold onto the wisdom, experience and employee-customer relationships from which they currently benefit.

Who on your team is so valuable that you can't afford to lose them?

It used to only be the C-level executives who could fit this category. That MVP status is no longer their exclusive club. Consider your sales team, for example, if they have crafted tight working bonds with key customers. Recent research shows customers trust the person with whom they deal directly more than they trust that salesperson's company. With products and pricing becoming more generic, it's the relationships that customers trust. Outside the electrical business, when insurance agents and stockbrokers move to new companies, they take their customer portfolios with them. It's happening in this market, too. As a customer, if I know I can count on my buddy Joe to deliver my order on-time, at the agreed-upon price and in perfect condition, why am I going to mess around with Joe's new, wet-behind-the-ears replacement? It only takes a few seconds to put Joe's new number in my speed dial. I quickly have a new supplier, and Joe's old boss doesn't know what hit him.

This customer loyalty creates the free-agency situation we've watched in the sports world for decades. Wrestling for the best prospect by competing teams is now the playing field we find ourselves on with employees, not just athletes.

An-all-too-common phenomenon is when a top employee turns in a two-week notice, and the boss offers to match the new salary from the competition. Such an offer is insulting to the employee who has made the decision to move on. Where was that offer before he turned in his notice? Where was that appreciation for a job well done before the boss faced losing his superstar?

To keep great talent, you need to identify what they want in their employment. If that raise you offered them on their way out the door is real, why wait until you get their notice? Why not identify those outstanding employees and give them the raise before they contemplate moving on and testing the waters?

Not everyone leaves for more money, and not everyone has to have upward mobility in their careers. Most people want to be appreciated and challenged. Give them new territories to bite into or additional responsibilities that will challenge them, and properly compensate them for those additional duties.

If you think this is going to break your bank, then you are being short-sighted. To lose these talented individuals will cost you even more to replace them, train those people, and wait while they gain the amount of experience you lost — not to mention the opportunity cost, if your customers follow the lost employee to your competitor.

Take action to identify your top talent and create a retention program to keep the competing wolves at bay.

Mentor with details, expectations and reports

Most mentoring programs have the young gun riding along with the experienced person. They watch, ask questions and learn the paperwork for a couple of weeks, and are then turned loose on their own. This isn't mentoring; it's “sink-or-swim.” The new crop of fresh talent knows they don't have to go that route, and they will find someone who will take the time to kick-start their careers. That someone should be you.

Mentoring programs are designed to be an effective transference of wisdom and experience, not just from ride-alongs, but from a detailed program designed to convey every piece of information the new person needs to be successful.

Start with the job description. In what should your new hire have full proficiency before you expose them to customers? Spell out each job skill and every step of every process in detail. Companies that position new talent for career success will receive in return better loyalty and longevity of employment.

Once the job description has been detailed, including all the steps and procedures well documented and repeatedly walked through, set standards of excellence. I often see people talk about training minimums. Those terms set an impression of, “we just want the basics and minimums to get by.” Set standards of excellence so you establish an expectation of high performance and success, both for your employee and the customer.

The mentoring programs I implement in organizations include specific, well-documented details and weekly reports on progress, accountabilities both for the mentor and the “mentee,” and specific action steps required to be accomplished with excellence.

When selecting mentors, it's not necessarily the person with the best numbers that makes the best mentor. It's the person who understands the importance of proper communication and direction, and is willing to get out of the way to let the mentee get in and get dirty. Typically, the high-performing mentor isn't as focused on the development of the new person, but on maintaining their own numbers while dealing with the distraction of someone tagging along.

Mentoring is key for information, education and knowledge transference, so your customers don't miss a beat, your employees build confidence, and you create a legacy of developing from within. This sends a loud message that loyalty is rewarded.

Communicate with employees like never before

If you have a small organization, it may be tough to offer the same career opportunities available in larger multi-tiered organizations. In this situation, the key to keeping your top talent is to offer development opportunities. Allow the talented employee to learn different areas. This will challenge them. Everyone in today's world has become afflicted with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), and constant stimulation is key to keeping talented employees engaged.

“Job morphing” (molding jobs to fit the talent of the person rather than forcing the person to fit into a rigid design or job description) is one way to keep your best talent performing at their best, which means the company is getting the best return on the salary investment. For example, maybe in developing the mentoring program mentioned earlier, you discover that one employee is great at giving rookies the encouragement they need while giving them the space to make their own mistakes. How can you further enhance that employee's coaching skills and use them to develop other members of your team? Perhaps you discover another would-be mentor isn't too great with the person-to-person aspect of orientation, but she is good at breaking down processes into understandable chunks of information. That skill for organization could be funneled into streamlining and improving your existing procedures to benefit both your customers and your bottom line.

The newer generation is hungrier for knowledge and information than any workforce we've ever employed. No longer can you tell someone to do something and expect no questions in return. They want to know not only the “why” but also the context into which that task fits. Effective communication and sharing of information and ideas engages talented employees, creates a more connected management staff, and gets people working together on solving issues, having input and taking ownership of solutions.

Although such job adjustments may not seem like much of an advancement of a career in the classic terms, it's an advancement in the foundation of career success. Solution interaction, ownership of issues, and the sense of accomplishment of using ideas creates advancement opportunities.

Open dialogue also will minimize the cynicism, boost managerial credibility and create trust at work. Trust in the workplace is as valuable as gold. That's the type of currency your top talent is looking for in addition to appreciation and proper compensation.

The author is president of Russell J. White International Inc., Lake Wylie, S.C., and known in speaking and consulting circles as “The Big Guy.” He is an author, trainer and international speaker with 25 years of experience as a Fortune 500 manager and consultant. One of Electrical Wholesaling's editors sat in on one of his presentations and was immediately hooked on his infectious enthusiasm and real-world lessons in leadership and human resources. White is the author of “Debunking the Designated Decoy: Get to the Truth in Your Organization!” and “Little White Truths: Lessons for Leadership.” His articles appear in many national trade magazines and regional business newspapers. He can be reached at (877) 275-9468 or by e-mail at mail@thinkBIGguy.com. Visit his web site: www.thinkBIGguy.com.