Tips for Retaining Experts and Specialists

Four ways to keep your specialized talent from walking out the door.

By Tim Vigue and Marji Marcus Jan 4, 2016
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HR Magazine December 2015The global economy has become increasingly reliant on knowledge, technology and innovation. That’s why many businesses today require the talents of highly specialized professionals such as scientists, analysts, engineers, accountants, architects and consultants—the so-called high-professionals. Yet, unfortunately, studies show that companies are not doing enough to retain, develop and reward members of this critical group. Here are some tips on how to change that:

Determine what motivates them. Hint: It’s likely not money or a promotion. A September 2015 Korn Ferry survey found that nearly two-thirds of global executives said what matters most to high-professionals is “being recognized as a subject matter expert inside and outside of the organization.” By contrast, only 7 percent said a raise was most important and 4 percent pointed to a promotion as most critical.

Experts and specialists are passionate about their field and usually find it very rewarding to share their knowledge. Inviting others in the organization to come to them for information or assistance with problem-solving is a great way to help these individuals feel more valued.

Offering high-professionals the opportunity to share their expertise by presenting at conferences or writing white papers in their field is another way to recognize their work and enhance their satisfaction. Make it a habit to publicly acknowledge and praise their outstanding accomplishments.

Help them expand their knowledge base. The Korn Ferry survey found that the second-biggest motivator for experts and specialists was opportunities to enhance their professional skills. Unfortunately, however, 78 percent of the organizations represented in the study did not have development programs designed to help high-professionals advance within their specific function. This represents a huge missed opportunity. Consider creating formal and informal development opportunities that help these individuals broaden or deepen their skills. Use a mix of outside professionals and senior people within your organization to lead these development efforts.

In addition, provide funding for professional development such as seminars, webinars certification exams and training opportunities so that your specialists can stay current with trends and tech advancements. Also consider offering sabbaticals that could be used to study and conduct research.

Create alternative career paths. For many specialists, being asked to be a manager of people is not a plus. They want to be recognized for their expertise and consider tasks such as writing performance reviews and attending management meetings less than satisfying—which probably means that any direct reports likely would not be thrilled with the arrangement either.

Instead, create alternative career paths that progress to positions within the organization in which high-professionals can have significant impact and influence on others and the company without taking on direct reports. Successful organizations have done this by creating roles such as “fellow” or “chief engineer.”

Plan for succession. Because of the autonomous nature of their work, specialists are often the only ones in the organization who possess certain skills—along with critical organizational knowledge. Companies risk losing deep knowledge and expertise as their long-tenured experts begin to retire.

That’s why it is key to encourage experts to share knowledge with others, perhaps even through a formalized mentoring program. As they learn to contribute through others, they further develop themselves, expand their sphere of influence and help their company secure a pipeline of upcoming talent. But be sure to reward these individuals for doing this and provide them with a road map that does not mandate movement into formal management roles.

Tim Vigue is a managing principal with Korn Ferry. Marji Marcus is a principal consultant with Korn Ferry.

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