How Managers Can Recognize and Retain Top Performers

Chances are, the top 20% of your team accounts for 80% of your output.

Think about that for a second. Imagine working on a group project where a single person was doing 80% of the work. What if that person quits a few hours before the deadline? That’s the risk you take when you don’t nurture the top performers in your company.

You probably know how important your superstars are to your business. The real question is, how do you identify your star players earlier on so you can keep them playing on your team?

To help, we talked to three leaders about how they manage their top performers and looked into the science behind what drives high-performing team members.

How to Recognize Top Performers

Start by figuring out which team members you would consider high performers in your company.

Determine What Traits Make a Top Performer

Success looks different for each position and person. To find your top performers, you need to define what success looks like in each role. Then, you can set clear milestones and goals for your team members to work toward.

Keep in mind that it’s easier to stand out in some roles than others. In sales, for instance, you can spot a top performer based on the amount of revenue they bring in. Gauging the impact of a developer, on the other hand, is trickier. That’s why David Kofoed Wind, CEO of Eduflow, uses a performance review rubric.

“We sat down and defined the traits we would like to see in a perfect developer,” Kofoed Wind says. “We condensed those traits into a performance review rubric which we use for our quarterly performance reviews.”

Kofoed Wind explains that the rubric makes it clear that there is much more to performance than shipping code quickly. He’s found that it is equally important for top performers to be good communicators, empathize with Eduflow’s users, and help other team members.

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Measure Your Team Members’ Impact on the Organization

High performers may work well autonomously, but if they thrive only on solo projects, their impact on your organization as a whole is limited. Your true winners are the people who can motivate others, bring in business based on their reputation, and positively impact your company.

Anyone who has seen Dirty Dancing can say that Johnny Castle was a fine dancer all on his own. But when you picture the film, you probably remember him best as the guy who lifts Baby up and lets her shine.

Johnny Castle’s talent made him a great dancer. His ability to teach and lift others up (literally and figuratively) made him a top performer.

John Kutay, director of product and growth at Striim, identifies his star team members by measuring their impact on strategic projects and gauging their ability to motivate others through their performance. “I give them opportunities to make an impact on projects that are visible to the company while also giving them ownership of certain areas,” Kutay says.

Seek Out Team Members Who Own the Company Mission and Values

“Top performer” is not an achievement that one can unlock and carry around from job to job. What makes a star player so valuable is what they bring to the team. So, when you look for top performers, seek out people who embody your company’s mission and values.

You might have a salesperson who consistently crushes their sales goals but shows no interest in sharing their secrets. If your company believes in winning as a team, someone with an “I work alone” attitude won’t meet your criteria for a top performer. Instead, you’d seek out a salesperson who is excited about sharing tips, mentoring newbies, and helping the entire team succeed.

How to Retain Top Performers

One in five top performers intends to leave their job in the next six months. Once you know who your high performers are, it’s your responsibility as a manager to encourage them to stick around.

Give Them a Chance to Grow and Earn More

For over a decade, lack of career development options has remained the number one reason employees leave their jobs. If you want to keep your top performers from shopping around, make sure they have a clear growth path at your company.

Every team member should have a professional development plan that aligns with the individual’s goals as well as company objectives. Kofoed Wind of Eduflow recommends talking to every person about what they hope to achieve in the long-term. “Work together to figure out which skills they are currently not comfortable with, ” Kofoed Wind advises. “Make goals and plan together for how to develop those competencies.”

Continuously challenge your top performers by giving them stretch assignments. Focus on tasks that benefit you and the team member equally — don’t just use your top performers to compensate for other team members. For instance, you could ask a top performer to give a presentation on something they do particularly well, such as saving at-risk customers. That way, the individual and the team can learn together.

“Many top performers are motivated by challenges and learning new things,” Kofoed Wind says. “We keep an ongoing dialogue with everyone on the team about what their own goals are. . . . If they want, we can keep pushing them in new directions.”

Unsurprisingly, studies show that compensation is also one of the main reasons top performers switch jobs, so make sure those professional development plans map out salary increases, too.

Design your pay structure around what the role (and team member) means to you and your organization, not industry standards. When you rely on averages, you remove the human aspect from the equation. Think about why you value your top performers, how much they contribute to both your company culture and bottom line — and then pay them accordingly.

Protect Them from Burnout

Often, star performers shine so brightly that they end up burning out. Not only do top performers end up on the toughest projects, but they also take on too many tasks and cover for other team members — whether you ask them to or not. As a manager, it’s your job to protect your stars from exploding in a supernova and burning out for good.

Often, star performers shine so brightly that they end up burning out.

Burnout is bad for business — workplace stress can increase voluntary turnover by nearly 50%. And since your top performers are more likely to burn out, you’re at higher risk of losing your best workers.

More importantly, burnout negatively affects people’s emotional and physical well-being. “Mental health is huge,” says David Cardiel VP of Demand Generation at “Surprise top performers with half or full days off, cash, shoutouts, etc.”

Kutay and Kofoed Wind agree; both managers encourage their team members to take time off, especially after large projects or tight deadlines.

Of course, you can protect your team from overworking only if you’re aware of their workload. Make sure you use weekly one-on-ones to check in on your top performers’ bandwidth. “I use the start of the week to identify workloads and issues, ” Cardiel says. “Then we prioritize what we need to get done as a team and one-on-one.”

Keep Them Engaged

We’ve talked before about brutal economics of disengaged employees — and it only gets worse when your highest-performing team members’ enthusiasm starts to wane.

Keep your top performers motivated and excited about their work by continuously providing feedback. Even though studies show that high-performing employees expect regular performance assessments from their managers, only 53% say their manager “delivers on their feedback expectations.”

Use weekly one-on-ones to share feedback and show each team member that you value them, and then let them guide the conversation. “One-on-ones should be led by the top performer,” Cardiel says. “I ask my team to own their space and come up with solutions to problems. The ones that rise to that challenge are the ones I see succeed.”

Another way to keep your team engaged is to turn your top performers into mentors. Mentorships are a win-win — people who serve as mentors report greater job satisfaction, and adding a top performer to a team boosts the entire team’s effectiveness by 5-15%. Just be sure to monitor bandwidth during one-on-ones to avoid mentorships turning into top performers taking on their mentee’s work.

Nurture Top Performers with Weekly One-on-Ones

Top performers stay at (or leave) companies for different reasons — compensation, growth opportunities, remote work options, benefits packages, etc. No two employees will want the same thing from a company or specific role. Weekly one-on-ones give you a designated time to discuss everything from workload to career goals, which in turn will help you figure out who your top performers are and how you can keep them engaged at work.

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