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Q: After a couple of years of cutting back to minimize losses, our company is leaner now and we’ve discovered that our leadership team and key staff are more critical than ever to our success as business starts to pick up again. You’ve addressed how to attract top talent but what can we do to keep ours? Losing any one of them right now would be a major setback for us.

A: First of all, I want to commend you for having the foresight to think about this. I’ve seen more than a few thriving companies blindsided by the sudden departure of a top executive or senior staff member. Losing such a person ruptures the continuity and relationships that enable your company to perform well. It is a setback in every way: strategically, culturally, and financially.

This is particularly relevant considering that according to recent national survey, 60 percent of employees today say that they are ambivalent about their current jobs and 31 percent of executives are thinking about leaving their current positions.

As we recover from the Great Recession, many employees who felt stuck are finally starting to look around for better opportunities. Not so long ago, fear kept a lot of employees from thinking about a job change or career move. Now, keeping employees engaged is becoming more of a concern for companies as we crawl out of the economic downturn.

Like you, lots of employers are focusing more on executive retention because they recognize the significant cost of losing elite performers and the escalating competition for top talent. This trend suggests that opportunity is already knocking for well-networked executives across all industries and functions, including those who are not currently considering a career move. And because social media has become such an essential tool for connecting online with peers, your executives are much more visible to recruiters now, even if they aren’t actively looking for a new opportunity.

If they are looking, what is driving their restlessness or dissatisfaction? Certainly a competitive salary continues to be the foundation for keeping top talent, but the survey revealed that it’s not all about the money. More business leaders -- particularly the up-and-coming next generation ones -- are looking at the whole picture: work/life balance, advancement potential, your company’s overall attractiveness in terms of brand and market share, and whether they think they can work well with a prospective new boss and team. It’s true that many executives feel their compensation has not kept pace with increases in cost of living and fixed expenses in recent years, but when it comes to growing their careers, money is not their sole motivation.

Employers have a tendency to direct a lot of attention and resources to their top performers, offering them extra perks, and to the underperformers at the other end of the spectrum, monitoring their deficiencies. What about all those middle performers who make up the vast majority of your workforce? Are you aware that many of them are known as the “popos,” which stands for “passed over and pissed off?"

One of the most telling discoveries from that national survey is that a lot of employees simply feel unappreciated and at times, underutilized and unimportant. If they are unhappy in their current positions, or worse, bored with their jobs, this leads to loss of respect for their bosses and co-workers. They basically do just enough to get by and become, in essence, “retired on the job.” All of this has a detrimental effect on morale and ultimately, your company’s performance or, ability to deliver.

Beyond retaining your top performers, perhaps the larger question is: what can you do as an employer to encourage your middle performers to become top performers and to inspire your underperformers to want to improve? Here are a few recommendations.

 -- Check in with your employees on a regular basis to find out whether they are happy. One method is to conduct “stay interviews” in contrast to “exit interviews.” Ask your employees what they like about their jobs, what they do not like, and what changes they would like to see. Ask them what could entice them to leave the company. Do this on a consistent basis and use their feedback to make adjustments to your company’s management style, work environment, skills training, career development opportunities, etc.

-- Remember to say “thank you” to your employees regularly and/or more frequently for their efforts and contributions. Recognize and celebrate milestones with them.

-- Sit down with them once or twice a year to discuss their career plans. What can you offer to help them develop professionally?

If you are concerned or skeptical about investing the time these suggestions represent, consider that the departure of just one key executive or senior level staff member can cost your company as much as $500,000.

Recruiting your own best people is one of the top retention tools available to you.•••

Jennifer Laxton is the president of ESA Consulting, located in Santa Rosa, www.esa.com. ESA is a consulting company providing talent acquisition, workforce planning and career coaching services. You can reach her at 707-217-4535 or jklaxton@esa.com.