How To Identify, Develop, and Retain Your Top Talent

How To Identify, Develop, and Retain Your Top Talent

Every company wants to work with the best. The ability to innovate, compete, and stay relevant hinges on putting the right talent into the right places. Top-tier talent can boost productivity, fuel growth, and help your organization flex to meet new opportunities and demands in the marketplace.

Finding and keeping that talent, however, is a perennial challenge. To find great workers, many modern companies take a multi-pronged approach  that may include external recruitment, leveraging top independent talent, and nurturing their own rising stars.

What’s the ideal approach to get the best performers for your team? In this article, we’ll unpack what “top talent” means and delve into practical strategies to help you identify, develop, and retain the high performers you need.

How to identify top talent in the workplace

Top talent—professionals who excel in their fields—bring value and competitive advantage to the companies they work with. Access to standout achievers is critical for growth, productivity, and better performance, and can also determine an organization’s adaptability.

What it takes to earn the reputation as top talent can vary—by industry trends, company culture, strategic objectives, and even the needs of a specific role.

In this section, we’ll look at:

  1. How to define top talent
  2. Why it’s important to look beyond past performance
  3. Assessment tools that can help you get additional insights
  4. How to conduct thorough interviews
  5. The advantages of a strong employer brand
  6. How to leverage social media and your professional networks
  7. Why it helps to keep an eye on the competition

1. What is top talent?

Top talent is defined by a combination of hard skills, soft skills, attributes, and behaviors. However, how one company chooses to prioritize criteria to screen candidates is rarely the same as another. Instead, when hiring top talent, companies typically search for professionals who align with:

  • Role requirements. Understanding the expertise, experience, and qualifications needed to excel in a particular position is critical. By conducting a skills gap analysis, you can identify the competencies your team is missing and decide how to fill them.
  • Goals. Your talent search will be guided by overarching business objectives, so you can screen for professionals whose interests and aspirations dovetail with the company’s.
  • Culture. A company’s culture encompasses the values, work style, and practices that guide its day-to-day operations. If a professional’s approach clashes with that foundation, there’s a risk they could become disengaged—or even become a distraction.
  • Potential. Top performers aren’t only defined by the accomplishments they’ve achieved so far. They’re often people who are also able to learn quickly, adapt to new situations, and step up to face incoming challenges.
  • Leadership attributes. Possessing the ability to think strategically, make good decisions, inspire others, and bring a team together can be invaluable, especially if one of your goals is to build a pipeline for future leaders.
  • Mindset. How someone approaches their work—such as with a mindset of innovation, growth, or collaboration—can influence both cultural fit and their potential impact on the organization. A positive mindset doesn’t just aim to do well, it consistently looks for ways to do better.

How you ultimately decide which characteristics to prioritize will likely depend on your project scope or job requirements.

2. Look beyond past performance

Past performance is typically seen as an indicator of future performance, and we use resumes, professional profiles, and portfolios to try to identify what someone is capable of. This isn’t wrong—a professional’s track record reflects their work ethic, perspective, values, and ability to deliver specific tasks or projects.

However, how those performance indicators should be weighted when assessing someone’s potential isn’t always clear. Leaning too heavily on previous results can lead to bias and even missed opportunities because it can overlook:

  • The impact of a changing environment. Past performance may have been influenced by the culture and resources at a different company, different market conditions, or personal performance factors that aren’t static.
  • The needs of different roles. Jobs, and the skills it takes to excel, are dynamic. It takes continual learning and development, as well as an adaptable mindset, to perform consistently.
  • Potential for growth. From the lens of a resume, seeing whether a professional has been challenged or underused in a previous role is challenging at best.
  • Cultural fit. How someone aligns with an organization’s culture, technologies, and processes can influence whether or not they’re able to deliver their best.  

What can you do differently? Writing in HBR, James Intagliata, Jennifer Sturman, and Stephen Kincaid — of leadership advisory firm ghSMART — said it’s important to consider how someone can grow into increasingly complex work.

“When you don’t know what the future will bring, how do you figure out who has—or can acquire—the right strengths to meet those challenges?” they asked. “Past performance doesn’t tell you who can do things they haven’t done before. It also doesn’t help identify high potentials earlier in their career.”

A framework they’ve developed considers three psychological markers:

  • Cognitive quotient (CQ). How someone uses their intellect to identify and solve the right problems.
  • Drive quotient (DQ). Considering what motivates someone, then looking at how they apply that energy to lift themselves and others up.
  • Emotional quotient (EQ). Going beyond the core competencies of emotional intelligence (EI) to understand how someone leverages their EQ to make a bigger impact.

In an interview with SHRM, Steve Hrop, a vice president at workforce management company Caliper, also cautioned against relying too heavily on visible traits such as confident communication and effective presentation skills—the qualities most on display when professionals pitch their services to you. Instead, he suggested digging deeper for less visible qualities such as the ability to coach others, natural leadership traits, and effective problem-solving skills.

3. Use assessment tools effectively—and carefully

Incorporating assessment tools into the recruitment process can help you sift through a talent pool to filter for your best matches. They can also help you get a more rounded perspective of potential employees and independent professionals—if you match the right tool to the right purpose.

With a selection of the best talent assessment tools, you can adjust your approach to address the needs of your team as well as your organization. Here are a few types of tests and exercises you may want to consider:

  • Personality tests aim to predict how an individual might think, feel, and act in various work-related situations.
  • Simulation exercises give candidates hypothetical, job-related situations; their response can provide insights into their problem-solving and interpersonal skills, as well as their judgment.
  • Skill assessment tests help measure proficiency in specific skills required for a position.
  • Cognitive ability tests assess an individual’s general intelligence as well as their ability to think critically, solve problems, and process information quickly and accurately.
  • Job trials, lasting from a few hours to several days, have a candidate perform tasks or projects they'd be doing in the actual job.
  • A portfolio review is a thorough assessment of previous work samples in order to gauge skill level and style.
  • Reference checks with previous employers or colleagues who can hopefully provide insights into past performance and work habits.
  • Remote video interviews—on the rise due in part to remote work—can enable a more comfortable and constructive discussion.
  • Gamified assessments use game-like scenarios to assess various skill sets and traits.

When deciding which tools to use, consider the specific needs of the position as well as the qualities and characteristics that will likely be most vital for success. A combination of multiple tools may give you a more comprehensive view of a candidate. However, while they can be informative and create opportunities for discussion, it’s important to remember that no test is definitive. Any results should be taken in context with information gained through other methods.

4. Conduct thorough interviews

An interview is an opportunity to close information gaps and get answers that can help everyone involved in this process make a clear decision about next steps.

For leaders involved in the hiring process, direct conversation is a chance to gather impressions and insights into a professional’s qualifications, problem-solving skills, personality and cultural fit, as well as their enthusiasm and motivation for their work.

Whether you conduct an in-person or remote interview, use closed (short or yes/no) questions to confirm basic details and open-ended questions to generate discussion and gain insights.

Different types of interview questions might include:

  • Technical questions to assess the hard skills and knowledge needed to do high-quality work.
  • Behavioral questions that provide insight into soft skills, such as communication, conflict resolution, and collaboration.
  • Hypothetical questions where you present a realistic situation and ask how they would respond.
  • "Off the wall" or seemingly absurd questions designed to prompt a creative response or logical reasoning.

Keep your interactions thorough, consistent, and objective by creating an interview checklist. An interview checklist is a roadmap of essential topics that you’ll address in every interview, allowing you to make equitable comparisons between candidates. It also gives structure to the process, helps you manage time efficiently, and keeps the focus on job-related topics.

Remember to leave time for the interviewee to ask their own questions of you.

5. Foster a strong employer brand

An employer brand is the impression employees, potential employees, and independent professionals have of working with your company. It reflects your company’s values, practices, culture, and mission—and it can be a significant asset.

If brand perception isn’t good, however, it can be a significant liability.

To help boost your employer branding, find ways to share your company’s values, qualities, and successes with the people you most want to work with. You can help build a successful strategy by:

  • Dissecting the employee value proposition (EVP). The combined allure of compensation, benefits, culture, and growth opportunities can generate buzz around your company.
  • Creating an identity blueprint. How do you want people to describe your company? Set clear and measurable goals that will move the brand closer to the reputation you envision.
  • Defining the perfect fit. You don’t want just any top performers—you want top performers who will be a fit for your unique ecosystem. Tailor the branding strategy to reach your ideal candidates.
  • Analyzing the talent acquisition process. You want to be able to double down on aspects of your process that work and stop pursuing those that don’t.
  • Setting clear key performance indicators (KPIs). Establishing clear metrics for your brand strategy allows you to track its efficacy more easily.
  • Improving promotional channels. Choosing the right platforms to promote your employer brand, and optimizing their content, can help maximize your efforts and enable you to make a quick pivot when audience preferences change.

By positioning your company as a leading employer, you can help improve its image, enhance retention, and even reduce cost per hire by drawing top talent directly to you.

6. Leverage social media and professional networks

To find the best talent, you need to cast a wide net. Professional networks—including social media, alumni groups, personal contacts, and industry-specific forums—can be an effective way to spread the word.

Getting referrals through your existing connections can really simplify the vetting process. You can verify qualifications and get meaningful insights from someone you already know and trust. However, there’s also a risk to relying too heavily on existing networks: If the talent pool gets too narrow, it can impact both the diversity of your team and its ability to compete in the longer term.

To balance this out, work with human resources and leverage your networks in conjunction with other recruiting strategies.

“When a workforce represents the demographics of the available talent pool, it’s a demonstration of expansive thinking and a commitment to excellence in all its forms.”

—Erin L. Thomas, PhD, VP, Head of Diversity, Inclusion, & Belonging at Upwork

The Path Forward: Cultivating an Antiracist Company Culture

To maximize your efforts to get a good referral:

  • Be specific. Clearly explain the skills, experience, and qualifications required to do the work.
  • Highlight the benefits. You need talented people to reach your goals—what’s in it for them? Beyond compensation, top-tier professionals look for challenges that offer an opportunity to grow and make an impact.
  • Actively engage. Don’t just post the job information and go offline. Respond to comments and inquiries, and followup on suggestions that people may provide.
  • Offer an incentive. A referral program that offers incentives and rewards can motivate people to give your request more consideration. An employee referral program, for example, can improve hire quality, be cost-effective, boost retention rates, increase cultural fit, and lower the risks for the referred professional.
  • Stay organized. Thank people for their referrals, whatever the outcome, and keep track of who referred whom. This is respectful and encourages people to help you out in the future.
  • Expand beyond your immediate network. By asking your contacts if they know someone else who might know potential candidates, you create a "network of a network" that can widen your search radius considerably.

Social media and professional networks can be a valuable shortcut to finding great talent. Just be sure to approach the process thoughtfully so you can attract good referrals while maintaining the good will of your professional relationships.

7. Keep an eye on the competition

Everyone in your industry faces the same challenges when it comes to finding and keeping talent—but nobody has quite the same pitch. From tools and tactics to compensation, understanding how others approach recruitment and retention can help you refine your approach—and maybe grab an edge.

For example, observing and analyzing your competitors’ activities can help you spot:

  • Shifts in industry standards and benchmarks
  • Emerging trends that could impact the availability of talent or the skills you need
  • Tactics your competitors use that get results—or fall flat
  • Strategic gaps that can be leveraged to your organization’s advantage
  • Services that improve efficiency such as sourcing tools and high-volume hiring tools
  • Sources of talent you may not have considered

Here are some sources that can help you keep a pulse on industry hiring trends and what your competitors might be up to:

  • Trade publications, such as online journals, magazines, and industry-focused websites
  • Broadly popular online communities and social channels including platforms such as Reddit and Quora
  • Niche online forums organized by professional organizations
  • Tools that can provide labor market insights through AI-driven technologies or data analytics
  • Hiring platforms and work marketplaces, such as LinkedIn, Indeed, and Upwork
  • Your professional network, which may include industry-specific recruiters
  • Industry conferences, where you can learn from a wide range of attendees, presenters, and vendors

When it comes to competitive intelligence, the volume of data can be overwhelming. But with the right set of resources, you can generate a consistent stream of insights to keep your talent pipeline in good shape.

Different approaches to talent management and succession planning

It may seem obvious, but one way to ensure access to the skills and expertise you need while also protecting your company’s investment in talent is to double (or even triple) your efforts to keep the workers you already have. A robust talent strategy gives your company a systematic approach to identify skill gaps, recruit new talent, and retain existing employees.

Improve retention of top-tier workers

There isn’t one simple strategy to improve employee retention and motivation. While compensation and benefits are important, employees are also looking for:

  • Flexibility and balance between their personal and professional lives
  • Clear career paths that will both challenge them and help them advance
  • Opportunities for learning and development
  • Regular recognition and evaluation, particularly more “in the moment” feedback
  • A positive work environment
  • A sense of community with their colleagues and peers

Identifying and assessing high-potential talent can also have a positive impact on succession planning, the process of identifying and cultivating high-potential employees to move into key roles as they become vacant.

Evaluate your leadership training program

Fewer than 1 in 10 companies think they have a best-in-class leadership training program. Even when developing internal leadership capabilities is a priority, efforts often miss the mark. Why? McKinsey and Company found that many leadership-development programs fail because they:

  • Ignore context. Many leadership programs are generic, with little consideration for the company’s unique strategy, culture, and needs. Leadership styles may also need to adjust depending on the situation and position of the person involved.
  • Don’t connect classroom learning with real work. People often learn best when they can apply new skills to real-world situations and genuine work challenges, which is harder to do in a classroom or off-site environment.
  • Underestimate mindset challenges. Sometimes new skill sets require a shift in mindset. Without a change in beliefs or perspectives, adopting new leadership techniques can be a challenge.
  • Fail to measure the impact. Without continuous feedback and metrics, it’s hard to fine-tune and iterate to make a program more effective.

By closing gaps in your organization’s professional development for leaders, you can create a program that’s ready to evolve so the next generation of leaders will be well-prepared to step up.

Explore flexible ways to develop employees

There’s an old adage to hire for personality and train for skill. That’s where training and development programs can be a valuable part of your performance management strategy. Employee training programs have been shown to:

  • Improve performance
  • Increase job satisfaction
  • Reduce turnover
  • Enhance compliance with legal requirements and regulations

The most in-demand skills are constantly changing; research by IBM found that most skills have a “half-life” of five years, but that falls to just two and a half years for technical skills. Investing in training can help your employees—and, by extension, your company—stay sharp and competitive.

Encourage mentoring relationships

An employee mentorship program can help with onboarding, preparing people for leadership roles, skill building, and career development. Critical to your retention strategy, mentorship programs have also been shown to deepen employee engagement with both the company and their peers.

According to a survey by the HR Research Institute, 64% of respondents have some sort of mentoring program in place; among Fortune 500 companies, that number jumps to 92%. This might include:

  • One-to-one mentoring between a senior employee and someone who’s joined the company more recently.
  • Peer-to-peer mentoring that brings together people at the same stage of their careers.
  • Reverse mentorship where a less-experienced employee takes on the role of mentor.
  • Group mentorship in which a group of mentees might be guided through a particular situation or toward a shared goal.

Mentorship programs can be a powerful tool in the talent development toolkit. However, the process shouldn’t become too bureaucratic. As executive coach Naz Beheshti wrote in Forbes, “If the program comes across as another obligatory HR program, mentees and mentors are likely to resent it or merely go through the motions.”

Leverage cross-training for well-rounded employees

Cross-training uses initiatives such as job shadowing, collaborative projects with other departments, cross-functional training, and role sharing. While it’s just one type of effective training for employees, cross-training gives workers a chance to gain knowledge and skills while interacting with new colleagues.

Tap into the power of top talent with Upwork

To identify, develop, and retain the best talent, review these strategies and adapt them to fit your organization’s unique culture, requirements, and objectives. When you prioritize identifying and developing great talent, holding onto high performers becomes easier—they see that you’re as invested in their success as they are in yours.

Whether you need support with recruiting, a consultant to fine-tune HR strategies, or access to a global talent pool with expert-vetted talent from around the world, Upwork can help you get to work.

Up your work game—for free—and find the talent you need.

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Author Spotlight

How To Identify, Develop, and Retain Your Top Talent
Amy Sept
Writer & Editor

Amy Sept (@amysept) is an independent writer, editor, and content marketing strategist who’s dedicated to helping businesses of all sizes navigate the future of work. As a Canadian military spouse and slow traveller, she has a lot of hands-on experience with remote work, productivity hacks, and learning how to "go with the flow."

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