How to Retain High Achievers


Johnson’s Widget Sales (JWS) used to be one of the most successful suppliers in the industry, but the company’s top salespeople kept leaving the firm. Today, JWS is struggling just to tread water. Tim Johnson, the owner and CEO, can’t understand why his highest achievers typically stick around for a year or two, and then move on. His pay scale, after all, is about average for the industry. So, what’s the problem? What can Johnson do to retain his best employees?

He could, of course, pay his most talented people more money. Perhaps Johnson’s compensation plan could pay a higher commission to salespeople who meet their quota. Ours is an opportunity society, in which rewards—financial and otherwise—go to those willing to put forth the effort. A compensation package should be designed to drive individuals upward, with clear benchmarks and rewards. At JWS, compensation is uniform.

But not everyone is driven by monetary gain. Individual salespeople have different priorities: a higher base pay or a bonus plan might retain Joseph, but not Madeline. What is vitally important to one employee might not be to another.

The first thing Johnson (or any sales manager) needs to do is to get to know his players. What motivates them? What are their priorities? Maybe Madeline would like to spend more time with her family, which means she doesn’t like to travel too much. If Joseph is single, perhaps he would like to travel more frequently.

Susanna, meanwhile, has the potential to be one of JWS’s top performers, but what she really appreciates is a company that is socially responsible—a business that donates to local charities and hosts fundraisers. Susanna envies JWS’s competitor, which has a reputation for involvement with local causes. The competitor also brings in a consultant who assists sales team members with image and interpersonal behavior issues.

Sebastian has been with JWS for a few years, and routinely meets his quota, but he struggles to manage his own finances. If only JWS could bring in a financial planner, Sebastian and his colleagues could sort out all of those baffling taxation and investment issues. JWS’s competitor not only brings in a financial planner, but also routinely conducts team-building exercises, including baseball games and golf outings.

But Tim Johnson is not aware of his employees’ professional needs and desires. He’s never taken the time to get to know them. Maybe he should.

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