By Katie Morell
It was early morning in February 2018 when Priscila Nagalli walked into her employer’s office and put in her notice—without another job or backup plan. As director of treasury and capital markets at the New York City office of Actualize Consulting, a financial consulting firm, Nagalli had recently been promoted and, after three years with the firm, was considered one of its most valued employees.
She didn’t make the decision to leave because of a poor company culture. On the contrary, she felt aligned with the corporate values and culture. The problem was the workload.
“I was at a point where I was managing close to 27 projects at the same time and traveling constantly,” Nagalli says. “It was conflicting with my personal life. I have two young kids at home and a husband.”
By February, she was working all day, coming home and having dinner, putting her kids to bed, and then going back to work until midnight or 1 a.m.
“That went on for a few months without a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “Finally my husband asked me, ‘How long are you going to kill yourself?’ We decided as a family to cut our income in half. I just needed a break and figured I’d look for something else later.”
That same day in February, Kerry Wekelo’s desk phone started ringing. She picked up, heard Nagalli’s news, and sprang into action. As the firm’s managing director of human resources and operations at the time, she was keenly aware of Nagalli’s contribution to the company and wanted to do anything she could to convince her to stay.
“The first thing I did was to sit with Priscila and listen to her pain points,” says Wekelo, the author of Culture Infusion: 9 Principles to Create and Maintain a Thriving Organizational Culture. “At that point, she had 10 trips scheduled, which was creating a lot of stress. We were able to take those 10 down to two right there and enabled her to do the other [meetings] remotely.”
Wekelo knew losing Nagalli “would have affected [the company] tremendously.” Ultimately, Nagalli decided to stay after a number of changes were implemented, among them decreasing future travel, realigning the expectations for her role, and bringing on several new employees to cover a portion of her work pipeline.
“I saw that there was hope,” Nagalli says. “I love my job, I love my company, and Kerry was very interested in acting in the moment, which helped a ton.”
The top-performer conundrum
Some may argue that Actualize Consulting was lucky Nagalli decided to stay. This isn’t always the case, especially when it comes to top performers—those employees who are so good at what they do that they get pinged by recruiters weekly (sometimes daily) on LinkedIn with offers for higher salaries and cushier benefits than offered at their current companies. Are these superstars getting pinged more than high achievers were just a few years ago?
The numbers point to the affirmative, and for good reason. Today’s job market is hotter than it’s been in decades: in September, October and November 2018, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics announced the unemployment rate was down to 3.7 percent, the lowest since late 1969. The difference is stark, especially when you consider that the US unemployment rate was 4.8 percent as recently as January 2017.
With a job market this tight, top performers hold a tremendous amount of power, and employers are racing to figure out how to attract, retain, and continually motivate top talent whose options are nearly limitless.
“The talent market is unprecedented right now,” says Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot, an inbound marketing software company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with 2,400 employees worldwide.
“Companies used to be able to control hiring messages with brochures. Now candidates are doing their own research on Glassdoor, on social media, on LinkedIn.”
Burke likens this change to the general shift in how consumers make everyday purchases. We are more likely to download an app, she says, if a trusted friend has recommended it to us.
“It’s the same with the employee experience. Say you go to a cocktail party and someone asks you about how work is going,” she says. “You may say ‘busy’ or ‘fine,’ but if you are someone from HubSpot, and a top performer at that, we hope that you instead say, ‘Great, let me tell you about my amazing job.’ We are thinking about the experience of the employee at all times.”
According to Dianne Campbell, American Express’s vice president of global diversity and inclusion, the recruitment process starts way before a company identifies a candidate for an interview. Recruitment is always taking place, she says, and top talent in particular is evaluating employers on a variety of media, including reviews on Glassdoor and on corporate, external-facing websites.
“What does your website look like? Does it convey that you are working on innovative things?” she asks. “The face that you’re putting out reflects the type of organization you are and person you want to attract. Look at the images on your site. Are those images reflective of a diverse workforce?
“As a woman of color, if I look at a website and don’t see anyone else who looks like me, I won’t be sure it is the right place for me. This may seem like small change, but it has a high impact.”
Top performers are also looking to screen employers based on culture, so it’s all the better if an organization includes a page on its site about the employee experience. With this in mind, HubSpot created Culture Code, a slide deck that explains its culture to anyone who happens upon the site.
“Our Culture Code has been viewed more than 4 million times,” says Burke. “It really pays to take the time to write down what your culture stands for, the type of company you’re trying to create, and the type of people who are successful in your organization.”
Attracting the best talent involves clear and transparent communication throughout the interview process, Burke adds.
She says that while some superstars are interested in eye-popping benefits and top-line salaries, many are interested in knowing what types of problems they will be given the autonomy to solve and the types of people with whom they will be collaborating.
“These people want to know that your company has a strong mission. They want to know the ‘why’ in what you’re doing, they want to work with remarkable people, and they want to solve interesting problems,” Burke says. “I’ve never met a high performer who wants to be micromanaged.”
Worried that your company won’t live up to other award-winning cultures?
Fear not. Burke says candidates don’t expect all employee experiences to be perfect, but, increasingly, they are expecting organizations to live up to higher missions.
Burke’s sentiments are echoed in the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2018, which reports that the opinions of millennial workers (born 1982–1996) have gone down considerably when it comes to businesses’ motivations and ethics.
The survey’s executive summary, in part, reads, “Their concerns suggest this is an ideal time for business leaders to prove themselves as agents of positive change.”
Keeping high achievers happy
Retention is among the leading topics that keep business owners up at night—a worry that only increases when thinking about top performers, whose departures could spell disaster for companies large and small.
“I believe in ‘stay interviews,’ where you check with top talent to understand their intent to stay,” says American Express’s Campbell. “These don’t have to be formal, but they can be structured as regular check-ins to see if employees are staying fully engaged. The spirit of these meetings is to spend time understanding what is keeping them at your company. Every manager knows who their top talent is; they should be checking in more frequently with those people.”
Focusing on an employee’s motivations is always a good idea, says Katie Ziskind, a family therapist based in Niantic, Connecticut, with Wisdom Within Counseling. While some may be motivated by money or title, others are more interested in flexibility, more or less travel, and the list goes on.
“It’s really important to ask about motivations, to make that a normal part of the conversation,” Ziskind says. “A lot of bosses from older generations may worry that asking such questions will inspire employees to quit, but it is actually the opposite. These questions show you care.”
Today’s employees—especially those under 40 years old, according to Ziskind—like to see corporate transparency, want acknowledgment for jobs well done, and, now more than ever, appreciate being able to bring their whole selves to work.
The lines between work life and home life have blurred more with the younger generation, she notes. “They want to know they can put their personalities into their jobs. They want to know they can be gay at work or trans at work.
They want to know it is okay to have human feelings at work and know that people will hold space for them to be their entire human selves. If they’re going through a divorce, for example, they want to know that someone will be available to speak to if they need that.”
In addition to work being a place where top performers can safely express vulnerability, the same is expected from leaders.
“There is a lot of research around team compatibility and team trust; one of the best ways to build trust is for leaders to show vulnerability,” says Marci Rinkoff, founder of MBR Coaching & Training, an organization development firm based in San Francisco. “A leader doesn’t need to divulge something supersecretive, but vulnerability—sharing something personal about one’s life, something that is difficult for them—humanizes a leader and builds trust.”
Is it too late to save a top performer from leaving when she has turned in her notice? While the answer was no for Nagalli of Actualize Consulting, she admits the answer might have been different if her company hadn’t acted quickly.
“Some people will say it’s too late when an employee gives notice, but I think it depends,” she says. “If that happens, companies should listen to the employee’s concerns and be proactive. Even before that, it’s good to know when the employee becomes disengaged and see if there’s anything that can be done to make things better. That way, the employee is more likely to stay before anything escalates.” DW
Katie Morell is a San Francisco–based journalist who specializes in business, travel, and human-interest topics.