Talent shortage solutions: How to attract & retain top performers

By Karl Ahlrichs

According to the latest U.S. Census data, we expect a dry spell until around 2030. Projections show that the number of working-age Americans will continue to drop until 2027 before a slow increase. We started our journey focused on high-performing employees, but the next step might be surprising.

Before you go further, upskill your existing management in two crucial areas—ethics and active listening. Why? The high-performing talent you hire holds exacting standards for those who lead them. Before hiring standards are raised (spoiler: That is a coming subject), training should upgrade management and leadership skills so leaders are ready for the higher caliber of new hires.

A quick story

I wish you could have been with me on an HR project a few years back. The goal we met was to reduce client complaints by raising the hiring standards and adding high-quality new hires to the talent pool. A secondary goal was to minimize the resignations of existing high performers. We achieved this by rewriting the job descriptions to reflect new organizational needs, changing the application process to include job-specific values, and paying attention to applicant sourcing. It worked! By raising the standards, applicant quality was significantly higher without an equivalent raise in needed total compensation. We thought we had a victory, but no. The new hires quickly quit.

What went wrong? We should have judged what would happen when the latest high-performing hires joined the team. The existing managers needed more time to be ready for the challenges of the new arrivals. A simple fact: High performers are more challenging to manage than average staff. They want to be challenged, listened to, and given stretch assignments. They are comfortable challenging the status quo. Although they may be a lot of work, they are more than worth the effort. Unfortunately, the managers were not ready, and the new hires quickly quit when their needs were unmet. Overall, the project failed.

Tough Talks D

Learn from my failure. What we should have done centers around two key areas—organizational ethics and active listening skills for managers and supervisors.

Organizational ethics

Think of ethics as your company’s moral compass. It is not about following the rules but doing what is right when nobody’s watching. Having high ethical standards is not pleasant to have; it is a must.

Why? It builds trust. When your high performers know they can count on you to do the right thing, they are more likely to stay and give it their all. Plus, it sets the tone for the entire organization. High performers head for the exits if leadership cuts corners or ignores ethical issues.

Active listening

Active listening is not about hearing what someone is saying; it is about understanding where they’re coming from. From a retention point of view, that is a significant change. When managers and supervisors take the time to listen to their team members, magic happens. People feel valued, ideas flow, and problems get solved faster than you can say “synergy.”

Doing this fosters a culture of respect and openness. When high-performing employees see their leaders walking the walk on ethics and listening, they are more likely to follow suit. Plus, it boosts morale and engagement; people want to work for an organization where they feel heard and know integrity is non-negotiable.

Leaders listen closely

Here’s the kicker: These skills are for more than those in the C-suite. They are for everyone serving in a leadership role. From the entry-level supervisor to the seasoned department head, everyone can benefit from honing their ethical compass and sharpening their listening skills.

Leadership is not about making big decisions or barking orders. It is about setting the tone, leading by example and creating a workplace where integrity and empathy reign supreme.

Karl Ahlrichs is a national speaker, virtual facilitator and author. He has decades of strategic HR consulting to all industries, using risk management and organizational development theories to bypass “best practices” and move directly to “next practices.”