areas that are vital to a firm’s strategic
direction, product innovation and
process effectiveness. Individuals
in these jobs typically don’t have
management responsibilities; they
have only to manage themselves.
• Captains in the field—
Middle-management positions that are critical
to executing a firm’s strategy. For
example, in sales-driven companies
such as pharmaceutical firms, they can
be field sales force managers in key
• Customer-experience creators—
Sales, customer-contact-center and/or
field-service jobs that are instrumental
to acquiring customers and keeping
them loyal. In these roles, employees
turn interactions into moments that
determine whether a prospect becomes
a customer, and remains a customer.
• Critical contractors—They
aren’t filled by employees but rather
by contingent workers who are
nonetheless vital to an organization’s
R&D, marketing and other success.
They are high-priced free agents who
possess critical and rare expertise
that can’t found internally, and have
their pick of clients—or the option of
not working at all. In an increasingly
free-agent world, such gig workers
accounted for 94 percent of the net new
employment in the U.S. between 2005
and 2015, according to the National
Bureau of Economic Research.
• Future leverage-role players—
These are candidates for your
organization’s most important
positions—and not just leadership jobs.
You’re nurturing them so they can one
day fill your company’s biggest shoes,
many of which are not leadership roles.
Whether or not a company’s most
essential roles are in those categories,
it is up to the CHRO to work with other
senior managers to determine what
they are. Once they do, the next step is
figuring out whether the organization
has top-notch talent in those critical
roles. If it doesn’t, then it must put the
right people in the right roles.
What’s after that? Keeping stellar
talent in leverage roles from leaving.
That, in turn, requires retention
strategies of a somewhat different
stripe, depending on the position.
The Right Mix
In our experience, each role
demands a different mix of career
development (skill building, coaching,
career mobility), leadership (the
quality of the boss), environmental
(work/life balance, location flexibility
and collaboration), performance
(feedback, and role and goal clarity),
compensation and organizational
reputation (the employer brand) assets
Indispensable C-suiters, those who
are able to propel performance, are
often at a late stage in their careers
and must deal with a new CEO or chief
operating officer, or a boss with hard
edges. For most, career development
is typically not a lever; they are quite
accomplished. And their comp package
is likely to be competitive. Focusing
on internal environmental issues can
work, but it requires having frank
one-on-one conversations to determine
their aspirations and frustrations.
Perhaps trying to address a particular
leadership issue—i.e., a problematic
boss—is in order if their boss is up for
it. If none of that works, you must plan
early for their eventual exit.
Essential exper ts are those who
possess valuable and rare knowledge.
Google’s purchase of DeepMind is a
perfect example of employees who fill
this role. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company has publicly stated that
AI technology is central to its present
and future, which is why it’s been a
pioneer in self-driving vehicles. In fact, a
year before she became Google’s chief
people officer, Eileen Naughton called
DeepMind’s scientists and engineers
the “elite of the elite” at the company.
People in this role must be highly
compensated; some will make more
than the CEO and other C-suiters. But
high compensation is only table stakes.
Career development is crucial to these
people—not to take on management
responsibilities (which they typically
resist) and climb up the ladder, but
rather to advance their knowledge
and stature, internally and externally.
Essential experts are life-long learners.
Organizational reputation and working
environment are also crucial to keeping
people in this leverage role.
Field captains represent the glue
in the middle. These key middle-management jobs can be found in
every business: retailer and restaurant
chain-store managers; heads of
factories at global industrial companies
that compete on quality; and area
managers of field sales forces in many
Leadership is the most important
retention driver for people in these
roles. Specifically, having bosses who
make the company’s strategy crystal
clear is a requirement, because these
middle managers must translate that
strategy to their troops. If the strategy
is unclear, their performance will
Environment is also an important
factor in keeping these people.
They love to be part of a strong and
stable internal community. Career
development must focus on gaining
new capabilities for the role—and less
on climbing the organizational ladder.
Customer-experience creators are
the sales, service and repair roles
directly affect revenue and profitability
by cultivating and nurturing clients.
Retaining top talent in key sales jobs
is largely a matter of compensation
more than any other retention factor;
they don’t like hitting pay ceilings and
can usually get the comp they deserve
Performance measurement is
also important because it determines
compensation. For service and repair
people, pride in the brand is critical
to keeping them, as well as having
competent leaders and a workplace
environment that empowers and
equips them to solve customer
Critical contractors are the outsiders
you can’t do without. Since they aren’t
employees, they aren’t looking to move
up the ranks of your company, and
they aren’t concerned about the work
environment because they don’t have
to “live” in yours.
An excellent example of this is
Jim Murphy, who served as chief
marketing officer at Accenture from
1993 to 2008 while not an employee.
Murphy was instrumental in building
Accenture’s brand and revenue, which
grew from $2.8 billion to $25 billion in
those 15 years.
What drives such people to continue
renting themselves back to your firm?
Certainly, since they are leading experts
in their domains, they command
premium pay. It makes no sense to
compare their pay with employees’
income. Organizational reputation is also
important; they want to be associated
with companies that are winners. And
career development can also be a
source of retention—if it increases the
credibility of their own brands.
Future leverage-role players are
the up-and-coming stars. When most
companies think about developing
their most important people for the
future, they think about high-potential
leaders. Yet, as mentioned before, the
people destined to hold the leverage
roles in the executive suite are not the
only ones who matter.
Companies that identify such roles
and put great people in them must
develop others to step into them once
the stars move on. These people must
gain the breadth and experience
required to excel in those leverage
roles—a career development challenge,
for sure. But environment is also
important, since these individuals thrive
in innovative and collaborative climates.
In conclusion, the opportunities are
bountiful for CHROs who have made the
identification and filling of key roles a
priority. Their efforts in these areas can
have a powerful impact on both the top
and bottom lines. However, these leaders
unarguably face another formidable
challenge: helping their organizations
keep great talent in those roles.
CHROs who develop successful
retention strategies that fit these
quite diverse roles will help their
organizations gain a profound talent
edge in the years ahead.
Beverly Kaye is founder, Cile
Johnson is senior vice president, and
Lynn Cowart is vice president of
quality delivery at Career Systems
International, a consulting and training
firm that has helped companies retain
and develop their most important
talent for more than 30 years. Send
questions or comments about this story
Key Drivers of Retention
Numerous studies have shown what companies must to do keep their key people working for them and not for competitors or other firms—or even dropping out of the workforce all together. From that research and our consulting and training experiences, we've identified six types of retention
• Development: Do people in (or aspiring to be in) leverage roles believe they
can continuously improve their skills in your organization? In a time when the halflife of skills is five years or less, are they getting both the formal development and
on-the-job experiences to remain relevant and advance their careers?
• Leadership quality: What is the collective effectiveness of leaders in an
organization, especially in terms of a person’s boss. People leave bosses, not
organizations. Inspirational bosses can have a great impact on whether your most
valuable people stay with your company.
• Work environment: Of course, the boss of any leverage-role player has a
huge impact on that person’s working conditions. But so do other factors, which
often go beyond a boss’s control: work/life balance; whether the person sees his or
her work as meaningful; workplace inclusiveness; and the extent to which cross-functional and cross-organizational collaboration is encouraged.
• Job performance: Great people filling leverage roles want to know how
they’re doing. Regular feedback can be crucial to keeping them. Role clarity
can also be important, as well as clarity about goals. Job performance also
encompasses how much an individual’s skills affect the success of the organization.
• Compensation: Since leverage role players have the greatest impact on
organizational success, it’s no surprise that compensation is crucial to retaining
them. “People should be paid according to how much value they contribute to
the company ... ,” said Ram Charan and his two co-authors in their 2015 Harvard
Business Review article titled “People Before Strategy: A New Role for the CHRO.”
However, compensation is a much more critical retention driver for some leverage
roles than for others.
• Organizational reputation: The final retention driver for people who
fill leverage roles is its brand reputation for all key stakeholders: employees,
customers, shareholders and society. A company’s reputation matters a great deal
to people filling leverage roles, and it means more to those who fill certain leverage
roles (for instance, critical contractors) than it does to others.