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Losing hurts – especially when it’s the other person who decides to move on.

“Regretted turnover” is a metric that some companies now use to track how many employees choose on their own to leave. Turnover is costly in general, but losing top talent can also cause significant, even irreparable damage to your business.

The term “top talent” describes people whose performance and behaviors are consistently exceptional and aligned with the company’s values. They are agile and adaptable, and they are continuous learners and adept problem solvers. They’re scarce, impossible to reproduce, and capable of creating significantly more value than other employees.

They are people who customers pay a premium to do business with and who other employees imitate and aspire to work with.

While most employees are capable of exceptional performance some of the time, top talent performs exceptionally most of the time. They are aggressively pursued by recruiters representing other companies. Their capabilities are generally transferable across traditional boundaries, such as industries or geographies, so they can leave at any time to join just about any company they wish.

Addressing the following threats and applying the strategies below can help you improve your position in the talent retention war.

Retention Threats

Even the best companies will lose top talent – in fact they’re at greater risk because other companies target their people. Lessening the following threats will help you retain top talent.

1. Bad ka”HR”ma – Poorly executed people practices may come back to bite companies that haven’t been doing right by their people. This isn’t a swipe at HR practitioners – it’s up to business leaders to make processes like talent acquisition, performance management and leadership development work as intended.

Companies kicked lots of talent to the curb when they downsized. While some companies handled layoffs well, others tripped and failed to treat human beings with respect and dignity. Some companies even carried their lousy treatment of people over into the hiring process, mistreating wishful candidates who were desperate for work, in the process.

2. Guerilla warfare – As the demand and competition for top talent increase, the tactics used by your competitors and their agents to acquire top talent will get more creative and nastier. Top talent will continue to get heavily solicited by recruiters. Plus, people are more networked than ever and many jobs are actually filled through networking.

What was once six degrees of separation has been greatly reduced thanks to networking sites like LinkedIn. Such sites provide employees with direct access to new opportunities and they let recruiters identify and directly contact so-called passive candidates who aren’t actively looking for another job.

Retention Strategies

Consider applying the following strategies to improve your position in the war:

1. Identify and notify – Identify people you cannot afford to lose and tell them that they’re highly valued. And tell them specifically why they are so well regarded. Make sure they receive continuous assessment, feedback and coaching. Check that their current job is still developing them. Recognize and reward them both publicly and personally.

Accelerate their development by exposing them to a diverse mix of assignment and experiences that: give them a big picture view, let them contribute innovative ideas, and allow interaction with company executives. Finally, see to it that their compensation and long-term incentives reflect their value to the business.

Note: Don’t use a label like top talent unless the criteria have been well-defined, you are very confident in your leaders’ assessment and communication abilities, and the senior leadership team has thoroughly reviewed, vetted, and calibrated them.

2. Produce alumni advocates – Help employees manage their own development and careers and you’ll get more productive and engaged employees in return. Employees are going to leave eventually for one reason or another, and there’s an added benefit to treating people right (as if those mentioned aren’t enough).

If they feel they were treated well, then alumni will be more likely to recommend your company as a great place to work and grow. Remember that we are living in a hyper-networked world, and word of mouth spreads far and fast.

The bottom line

It’s only going to get harder and more expensive for you to hire and keep top talent. They have more choices (and temptations) to leave than ever before.

It is no longer good enough to simply say that “people are our most important asset.” They want tangible proof. Therefore, your talent management strategy has to be well-crafted, communicated, and acted on.

If it isn’t, then you’ll have a hard time making the case for top talent to stay.

So, how are you faring in the talent retention war? What will you do to strengthen your position?

This originally appeared on The Conference Board Human Capital Exchange on July 11, 2013.

David Jardin is a consultant with the iTM System Group where he works with leaders and teams to make talent management simple, practical, and profitable. He began his career as a CPA and has spent more than 20 years in leadership roles in talent management and organization development with global companies including Citigroup, Coopers & Lybrand, Pfizer, and Tyco Electronics. Contact him at