The LeBron James Effect: First Signs You Are about to Lose Your Top Performer
Oct 6,
In 2010, LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to become a free agent. The Cavaliers tried everything to keep James on their team: they appealed to his sense of commitment and loyalty, they hired an impressive new coach, and they rallied fans to encourage his stay (Fox Sports, 2010). Despite all the efforts to keep him, James chose to join the Miami Heat instead. The Cavaliers couldn’t prevent their best performer from seeking greener pastures.

Turnover is the biggest challenge facing HR today, and the loss of top talent is of particular concern (Society for Human Resources, 2015). Losing top employees is devastating, especially when you consider that the top 2% of your employees drive 98% of the impact (Charan, Barton, & Carey, 2015). In addition, the average cost to replace a single lost employee is at minimum $3,300 (Hickey, 2015).

What’s worse, we don’t often realize who’s at risk for leaving until it’s too late. Once top performers decide to leave, it’s game over. Research shows that over 80% of people who receive a counteroffer from their current employer end up leaving within 6 months (Hawkinson, 2004). So, the trick is to know who is at risk for leaving before they make up their mind.

Here are the first three signs your top talent is about to leave:

1. Their skillset exceeds their current role.

Your most at-risk employees are your LeBron James’s: standout workers with a track record of success. These employees have the best chance, and the most to gain, by keeping their eyes open for new opportunities.  In fact, when polled by Forbes, top talent admitted that they expected to be working elsewhere within the year (Myatt, 2012).

You can easily identify employees whose skillset is exceeding their current role. Utilize simulations to assess employees at the next level of leadership and reveal their readiness for a promotion. Employees who are “ready now” to achieve strategic goals at the next level of leadership are most at risk for leaving. Their current role is no longer stimulating enough, and they are probably better leaders than their direct managers, which only increases their frustration. Make sure to concentrate your efforts on these employees and figure out how to keep them engaged until a promotion becomes available. Oftentimes, inexpensive retention strategies like increased access to executives or higher visibility in the organization will do the trick. Assigning a stretch assignment is also a popular tactic, and you can learn more about how to create quality stretch assignments here. 

2. They don’t fit in with their team.

 The importance of person-organization fit as a strong predictor of employees’ performance and turnover has been well documented in the research literature (Arthur, Bell, Villado, & Doverspike, 2006). It makes perfect sense – people want to belong, and don’t feel comfortable around others who are distinctly different. However, it is not always easy to spot this disconnect, as the differences may be very subtle and only appear in stressful or overwhelming times.

One way to measure your top performer’s fit with his or her team is through personality assessments. Calculate the average personality of your team as an aggregate of personality scores of individuals on the team. Then, estimate the strength of agreement on personality traits within the team and plot it against the top performer’s scores. The farther away the top performer is from the personality of the team, the more likely she is to leave.

3. They are encountering a major life event.

Not all high performers will follow the same path. Some may consider leaving when they receive their first outside offer, while others may stay in the organization for a relatively long time before exiting. Still others will leave without any poaching at all—major life events like births, deaths, and marriages can all shake up your top performers’ mindset. Keep a pulse on competition, but also stay aware of your top talent’s professional and personal goals. Being more involved and in tune with your team will lower the chances of departure, and in cases you can’t avoid it, at least you won’t be blindsided.

Don’t assume that all your top employees are itching to jump ship – deploy an annual assessment program to stay in the know and deploy retention tactics where they are most needed. Assessments can help you pinpoint what motivates each team member. We know that money isn’t everything, and that satisfaction with a team can be an even greater predictor of staying or leaving (Silverman & Waller, 2015).

Those with a strong need for growth or who crave new experiences are likely the most susceptible to turnover. Satisfy their need for development by creating stretch assignments. Other employees may be mismatched based on their skillset and the strategy of the organization. Perhaps they are better suited for a department working against a different set of strategic goals.

The Cleveland Cavaliers ultimately got a happy ending to their story: LeBron James came back to the Ohio team after his stint with the Heat. But for most organizations, once you lose your top players, you don’t get a second chance. Track your top performers with assessments and see the first signs of an at-risk employee. Keep your best talent playing for you–or else watch them score big for competition.