You’re the boss. You have an outstanding interpersonal relationship with your best A-Player. And you’re proud to have provided a career-expanding opportunity when you first hired her. She didn’t check every box back then (but hi-po’s rarely do).  She most definitely worked hard to expand her toolkit - to benefit you, your clients and your organization.

Over time, you began to view her more like a peer at times. The synergies were just right. She asked questions you never thought of and brought a complement of experiences you lacked. You made sure to provide positive job feedback from time to time, or at least annually, and pay a bonus within your company constraints. But then, she left.

So what happened?

Don’t be caught off guard when your top player is pinched/poached/picked off by another company. It’s easy to digest an average or under performer’s departure. With an under performer, it’s a RELIEF. When it’s an A-Player, it stings.

But chances are, you’ve not been proactive enough to stay on top of what’s important to that person in particular. It’s easy just to mind the most immediate  issues - minding the turkeys rather that feeding the eagles. If you don’t feed the eagles, someone else will. And they won’t be inside your company!

It’s easy to forget the needs of the high performer, especially if the culture seems to have some homogeneity or natural overlap among individuals and their responsibilities. And it’s even easier to forget that the A-Player needs more over time as she masters the job.

After applying baking soda to the sting of the unexpected departure, try to objectively examine what happened. Should you be surprised?

A-Players are always in demand, no matter what the economy. Your A-Player isn’t looking. She doesn’t have to. But you must assume that your team is bombarded with emails, LinkedIn invites and calls in this tight candidate economy. Remember, with social media and tools like LinkedIn, your team’s names are all in the public domain. There’s not a recruiter with a pool of unique candidates. Not all messages will be compelling. But one day, one will be.

Avoid these faulty assumptions of complacency when things are going well

  • A team member is happy and not looking, so the risk is low

  • Nearer-to-end of career candidates just want to ride it out – that they don’t want to take on new responsibilities

  • The company/I have provided a lot of opportunity; she wouldn’t leave after what I’ve done for her.

  • We have such a good relationship that if the team member was unhappy or considering something else, she would definitely let me know.

How to keep your A-Players

  1. Provide feedback. If your company only provides team member feedback annually, you must increase the feedback frequency. Perhaps at the completion of some natural cycle or project, like after a client meeting or series of meetings.

    Be sure to discuss the team member’s desire for a future path or greater responsibility or lateral learning. Perhaps not at every feedback point, but more than annually.

    Consider sharing company/department strategic goals and challenges that might be outside typical team discussions. The employee may have constructive ideas that need to be heard. To be included beyond one’s immediate boss is something high achievers value – to observe and learn how executive question and think. Once while I was working as an accounting manager, the CEO of our company came by to share a few insights and ask a question. I learned so much and it was one of the things I valued most in the role.

  2. Provide opportunity. You must get creative about giving “opportunity.”  Define opportunity much more broadly than just a fully-defined, separate job box.

    This can be a challenge within companies that view all titles as same-same.  Or where people have been brought in with the same titles, but over time, clearly have different performance results. It’s reasonable to redistribute work to the top performer, away from a relatively lower performer. And to adjust compensation accordingly.  But be sure to document it and clearly communicate the action to the affected team members.

    Some cultures will not support this idea. But then, the best people will leave, because the culture evolves and doesn’t fit (for them) anymore. And what does that turnover cost? It’s no small sum over time, especially in terms of new business generation in client-facing roles.

    One important note: Documenting and communicating is especially critical in today’s environment of ensuring equal pay for equal work, and making sure you can defend your practices, should an employee bring an action. If two employees start out with same titles but one outperforms another and one is paid more, change the “over-performer’s” actual job description and pay, and document the actual skill-based reasons why.

  3. Do an experience audit. Take a look at total employee experience touch points in your company.

    Start with onboarding. Is it smooth? Does it take a month for new hires to access company systems and hit the ground running? Do poor systems create time sucks? Is scheduling travel always a challenge? Are benefits processes difficult to navigate?

    Think about each experience employees have in every “key stroke” of the company. Every step of “user interface.” You would do so for your biggest external clients with respect to how they buy your services, so why not for the “user interface” of employees?

    What’s the leadership and general office vibe? If average and under performance is not addressed, A-Players feel they don’t fit.

    Even if you don’t personally mind these cultural detractor “creeps,” each of which may not be a big deal, but together add up, be sure that at least subliminally, your A-Player isn’t tracking them.

So. Are you really surprised your A-Player left? Or are you really surprised that you didn’t take your blinders off to see it sooner?