Choosing to retain top talent

Jul 09, 2023

Ying Liu, LEED AP BD+C


Organizations must proactively develop strategies to identify and retain top talent.

Growth is a choice for organizations, and so is identifying and retaining top talent. Without making an intentional choice to grow, organizations can still survive (to a certain extent); similarly, without making an intentional choice to identify and retain high performers, organizations can still operate. So, the question is: why do organizations need to make such an intentional choice if the basic survival and operations are unlikely to be at risk in the short-term even without a genuine intent to grow and identify/retain top talent?

The simpler answer is that making intentional choices in both areas simultaneously – growing the organization and identifying/retaining top talent – leads to greater purposes, improves the bottom line, amplifies core values, and builds a forward-looking mindset for organizations while leaving no room for complacency and cliché.

The less simple answer is that the two are complementary – organizations must retain their top talent to thrive, and top performers are genuinely passionate about the growth of their organizations.

Not to mention that when business leaders have these two areas aligned, they position themselves to attract and recruit like-minded top performers to drive exponential growth and set them up for long-term success. If the two areas are being perceived and implemented in a mutually exclusive or an unbalanced way, it is highly likely that an organization will not reap the full potential benefits of its exponential growth or, the worst case scenario, revert to its original position with all good efforts going in vain.

How do you identify a top talent? While the idea that “an organization is only as good as its people” is not new, not all business leaders understand that building a successful organization does not start with people, but instead, with roles. Before answering this question of how to identify top talent within the organization, leaders must first clearly define all the critical roles that drive the organization’s mission and strategies forward.

Once these critical roles are identified, each role must be accompanied by a clear set of responsibilities, core skills, necessary attributes, and non-negotiable characteristics deemed important to succeed. Only then can leaders objectively assess and match their top talent to these high-value roles. Do these high performers exist internally and can they be promoted within, or do they need to be hired externally? What trainings, coaching and mentoring are needed to bridge the gap between current state and desired level for employees with high potentials to fulfill a critical role? What are the expected timeline and available metrics to measure their performance to reach high-value positions?

In addition, great leaders also use good common sense to strategize, strengthen, or validate their thought process. For example, to identify whether someone is a high performer, an organization can simply ask the question of whether this talent would be hired again. If the answer is a powerful “yes” without any hesitation, chances are this is surely a top talent, and not an average one. Another question the organization should ask itself is what happens when an employee quits. A high performer would be very hard to replace and often affects the performance and engagement level of the remaining team; in contrast, if someone’s departure results in a neutral or even grateful feeling, this talent would not be viewed as a top performer by their colleagues, a sign for organizations to focus their energies and time on finding new top talent to fulfill the vacancy. Lastly, great leaders often proactively ask and objectively assess how their own performance is affected by an employee. A top talent would almost always meet or exceed expectations with minimum or no supervision, especially on new or challenging tasks; hence this top talent would not only relieve leaders’ stress level but also help the organization make a difference by creating a thing out of nothing, elevating the quality of important work, and driving unprecedented growth with positive changes.

Just like many things in business (and in life), the exercise of identifying top talent is not an event but a journey. In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing post-COVID world, organizations must reimagine their high-value roles and reallocate high-performing resources often – at least annually, if not quarterly – to remain relevant and competitive.

How to retain a top talent? While financial compensation plays a significant role in retaining top talent, this article focuses on three key intangible aspects, often less intuitive to or understood by many organizations, of how to make the top talent feel uniquely appreciated, which in turn maximizes the chance of retaining star players.

  1. Praise them, but be specific. Most top performers are known to be their own harshest critic. Highly driven by their tendency to be “perfect” to differentiate themselves, top performers are innately motivated to make a difference via their competitive advantage, something they have built over time but often must be relearned and/or unlearned to stay relevant and sustainable. The hidden truth is that top performers would not share this mentality with people around them. Why? Because this is their superpower and accomplishing hard things requires consistent effort. Great leaders do not take high performers for granted; instead, they make an intentional effort to avoid using generic compliments and tie the recognition with high performers’ specific accomplishments.
  2. Amplify their presence and contributions, both internally and externally. Being specific when praising high performers is a good starting point to make them feel valued and appreciated. This effort, however, will have a more lasting impact on winning their loyalty if they know their presence and contributions are being amplified through public recognition internally and externally. Great leaders never underestimate the power of elevating both the top talent themselves (the “presence”) and their impactful ideas or hard work (the “contributions”) to internal teams and external audiences.
  3. Invest in them with continuous growth and learning opportunities. Because extraordinary employees often spend much time and effort working on challenging things, they can easily feel lonely when performing at their peak. One of the most desired strategies for organizations to support their top talent is to continuously invest in them to encourage their development. While promotions and raises are great financial rewards, an organization can maximize the chance of retaining their high performers by allowing them to continue to learn and grow in their own individualized way. The right question for organizations to ask here is not about what happens if a top talent leaves the organization once they invest in them; instead, the right mindset to have is how organizations can help fulfill a top performer’s insatiable appetite for life-long learning so that this top talent does not want to leave the organization.

In short, organizations must proactively develop strategies to identify and retain top talent. This may sound like a cliché, but it requires an intentional choice to make talent mapping a leadership priority. The benefits of getting it right are not only immeasurable but also contagious in attracting more like-minded top talent, which will be icing on the cake for any growth mindset organizations. 

Ying Liu, MBA, LEED AP BD+C, is a strategy advisor with Zweig Group. Contact her at

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