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April 30, 2010
How to Retain Star Employees While Planning for Succession

Coming out of the 2009 decline, all organizations, and particularly agencies, are more exposed than ever. They are pressed to make up for the lag in 2009, are "resource lean" in all areas, and incredibly exhausted. Their people have been stretched and overworked in ways they've never been with no increase.

Agency leadership and holding companies, recognizing the need to focus on talent before a massive hemorrhage, are starting to staff up in training and organizational development capabilities. However, after a couple of years of the "great stretch," regardless of what agencies are doing now, many employees are currently looking for a new job. According to Towers Watson’s 2010 U.S. Global Workforce Study, 51 percent polled said there are no career-advancement opportunities in their current roles, and another 43 percent believe they must leave their organization and join another in order to advance to a higher-level job.

What should agencies do, regardless of size, to focus on key talent now? They should take a look at retaining high potentials and start planning for succession.

High potentials

While the average (or even above average) performer rarely considers leaving their job during a difficult economic period, High potentials do, which makes it even more vital to identify your “all-stars” now, since we’re technically out of the recession. (Sirota Survey Intelligence, 2009.)

This isn't to say you can ignore the rest of your organization, but your high potentials are your biggest flight risk, and they likely know it. While high potentials are the most positive employees, in that they often view policies as fair (if communicated effectively), they are more critical of your company’s ability to attract and retain top talent. Translation: “Stars” want to work with “stars.” Therefore, you need to keep your stars and get more.

While a lot of the recession’s cost cutting was necessary, the actions companies took unintentionally devalued high potentials by centralizing decision making (and not involving them) and discouraging risk taking and reducing rewards. Translation: They didn’t feel the love.

To counter this, once you know who your high potentials are and have a strategy, be transparent in communication, customize or accelerate development options, develop reward strategies, identify special projects, expose them to senior leaders, and develop customized career paths for them. Like every strategy, it needs to be customized to the target, so make sure you understand first their needs and priorities.


Assume that people, including some critical ones and some high potentials, are going to leave your agency within the next year. You will need to have a plan in place to quickly fill their roles, particularly if they are servicing a big or new client or are popular managers who might take a following to their next company, or are in unique, critical roles.

Succession planning, like all processes, can be done formally or informally. (One big, successful retailer I know uses multicolored Post-It notes to assist in the process.) While it doesn’t have to be complicated, it is important to get all of your senior leaders and HR in a room on a regular basis to identify executive, key, high potential, critical and at risk roles. Establish criteria for what each mean at your organization, review and bucket each employee every six months, and identify two or three internal successors for each. If they don't exist internally, identify a strategy for replacing the incumbent.

Like a lot of agency talent initiatives, Succession planning and development can get lost when client or new business priorities take precedence. In order to prevent this from happening, establish goals and metrics around each of these initiatives, build them into your senior leaders' performance plans, and hold your team accountable for recruitment, retention, and completion of your 2010 talent priorities.

The views expressed are the sole views of Robyn Lahlein and do not represent those of any current or former organizations or clients.

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Robyn Lahlein is a Talent Development and Organizational Strategy consultant who has worked internally and externally for clients and agencies within the advertising, marketing, media and financial services sectors for the past 10 years. She holds her Masters in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and is a business contributor to TheDailyBeast.com. The views expressed are the sole views of Robyn Lahlein and do not represent those of any current or former organizations or clients.

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