insight magazine

How to Keep Your Star Players on the Roster

It’s time to rethink the workplace, how work gets done, and what leaders can do to keep top performers on the team now and as the job market recovers. By Bridget McCrea | Winter 2020

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If you think your best employees will stay put right now because the global pandemic has driven up unemployment rates and minimized mobility, think again. And if you don’t believe your top performers are worth fighting for, you could be in for a big surprise when it comes time to recruit their replacements.

“Top performers do four times the work of others and the math proves it,” says Dick Finnegan, CEO at C-Suite Analytics, pointing to a study that found that the top 5 percent of any company’s workforce produced 26 percent of that company’s total output. This holds true during all economic conditions, he notes, and it’s particularly relevant right now.

“Our COVID-driven national unemployment rate is high, and you’re going to hear things like, ‘James quit, but there are a lot of people looking for work right now, so go find me another James,’” Finnegan says. “You can easily find a warm body to fill the seat, but if James was a top performer, you probably won’t find another one like him.”

Citing the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Finnegan also points out that when you compare the number of people who are voluntarily quitting their jobs right now versus the same period in 2019, the difference comes to just 18 percent. That means 82 percent of workers are still quitting and moving to new jobs voluntarily. “There’s a lot of action in the job market, even though we tend to think there isn’t,” Finnegan says.

Clearly accounting firms still have to think about employee retention—and particularly about retaining that small percentage of team members who do four times the work of others—at a time when an economic recession, a global pandemic, and other outside forces are capturing most of their attention.

Put simply, this isn’t the time to sit back and assume those star players will stay on the roster just because their lives have been upended by the events of 2020. “A company might think it has it made because the firm offers career ladders, a great benefits package, or some other perk, but those are not the things that make people want to stay,” Finnegan says.

Finding—and Keeping—Star Players

As head of professional recruitment for Adecco, Jason Kaiman has his finger on the pulse of the employment market. Regardless of factors like the potential for COVID spikes, political unrest, and economic uncertainty, Kaiman says companies should remember that the underlying crisis is health-related and not specifically an economic crisis. “Knowing this, a lot of organizations that we’re working with continue to hire and grow their teams, the obvious market conditions notwithstanding,” he explains.

Specifically, Kaiman says professional services firms are scouting for “A-level talent” that will help them become more efficient, nimble, and technologically adept. Achieving that goal requires a different mindset than the one companies had pre-COVID. A recent Adecco survey of 8,000 professionals (including those working in accounting and finance) pinpointed scheduling flexibility, the ability to work remotely, and a company’s ability to adapt to change as the “new” employee retention criteria.

“About 76 percent of the individuals surveyed said that the mix of remote work and office work in the future will be critical,” Kaiman says, pointing out that accounting firms aren’t generally known for their flexible work arrangements. This presents a great opportunity for firms willing to provide remote work options for parents whose children are now learning from home and for workers with health concerns who don’t want to come into an office.

With 84 percent of the employees surveyed by Adecco expressing confidence in their employers’ ability to transform and change, Kaiman tells accounting firms to consider their current resiliency levels and how they can be improved. “Historically, accounting organizations have been somewhat conservative,” he explains. “Now, some are taking a lead role in transformation while others are waiting to figure out what their next step will be.”

Finally, with 21.2 percent of people nationwide working remotely as of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ October count, Kaiman says accounting firms must rethink not only where their star employees are performing their work, but also how they’re managing those tasks outside of the conventional office environment. That could mean rethinking the traditional hourly schedule and shifting over to more of a project- and deadline-centric workflow.

“Consider adding flexibility into how the job gets done, versus the number of hours that someone is clocking in on a daily basis,” Kaiman advises. “That’s going to be the new norm on the other side of all of this, and most employers have already adjusted to it.”

Opening Communications

Along with setting up more flexible work arrangements and allowing star players to do their work on their own terms, Finnegan says accounting firms should also be talking regularly to their employees about their job satisfaction. Organizations can implement the “stay interview” (a concept Finnegan invented in 2012) to open lines of communication with their existing employees that often go unexplored between the hiring interview and the exit interview.

Finnegan says that every organization should implement stay interviews to help managers better connect with their team members. A structured discussion that takes place between a manager and each individual employee, the stay interview should focus on the specific actions that the company can take to strengthen that employee’s engagement and satisfaction with the organization.

Finnegan boils down the stay interview to five key questions, each of which should prompt an open discussion that the interviewer can use to impact change in the organization: When you travel to work each day, what things do you look forward to? What are you learning here? Why do you stay here? When was the last time you thought about leaving our team and what prompted it? What can I do to make your experience at work better for you?

“The employee’s responses to these questions opens the door to retention and engagement solutions,” Finnegan says. “Ask yourself, ‘How can I make small changes to my employees’ jobs so they can do more of what they want?’”

Another proponent of the stay interview, Jennifer Lee, executive director of learning and development at JB Training Solutions, says the firms using the concept to both listen to and share information with their star performers will have a better chance of retaining them once the work world begins to normalize and the job market picks back up. Additionally, a satisfied employee’s enthusiasm can spread across the team and lift overall retention for the firm.

Lee says recognizing superstar team members for their efforts, supporting them with relevant training, and coaching them virtually will go a long way toward keeping them on the roster in all business conditions. “Your superstars are the people who are always there for you, doing a good job, and 100 percent all-in for the organization,” Lee says. “The more you can recognize that, the better.”

Finally, remember this “new normal” isn’t going away anytime soon, so changes are probably in order. “The way you did business in the past can’t be the way you do business going forward,” says Illinois CPA Society member Gary Shutan, CPA, MBA, partner at Wipfli LLP. “We’re all dealing with this right now, and the firms that do a great job at adapting to those changes will be the ones that don’t have to worry about their people leaving. In fact, more people are going to want to come to work for them.”

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