Talent Series: How to Retain Your Best Collaborators

Lionel Messi’s situation is a high-profile example of something that happens on a daily basis in companies from all over the world: talented people leaving them because they don’t feel properly valued.
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This is part 5 of our Talent series. We focus on this essential resource for all modern businesses and look at the concept from various perspectives. The goal? To better understand talent and how it affects the workplace, how we can foster it, and how we can make the most out of it.

Click the links to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

 

When it leaked that Lionel Messi, one of the biggest football players of all time, wanted to leave Barcelona to go play for other teams, the entire world was shaken. The Argentinian star had become a synonym for Barça thanks to its magnificent performance throughout the years, which led the club to win a staggering 34 trophies during his career.

The stupor in the face of the announcement was such that it far exceeded the realm of football to the point where even the mayor of Barcelona herself chimed in to convince “Lio” to stay on the club. Players, journalists, actors, musicians, politicians – everyone had something to say about Messi’s future. As weeks went on, speculations fed the convoluted situation around the player which was finally forced to stay in Barcelona due to contractual obligations.

Messi himself announced he’d stay in an exclusive interview where he denounced Barcelona’s board of directors but in which he also committed to giving his best to the club once the season started. Today, Lionel is playing with Barça with all his qualities intact and there even are some people that say he is more committed than ever. So, happy ending, right?

If you focus on the short term, sure, it’s a happy ending: the club supporters can enjoy his idol for another season. Yet, once you go past that and start paying attention to the lingering uncertainty surrounding Messi’s future you’ll surely spot that the underlying issue is still there. Messi, being the talented player that he is, will obviously give his best to Barcelona while he’s still in the squad. But that doesn’t mean that his discontent has gone away nor that he will stay for good.

 

Being on the Lookout

Messi’s situation is a high-profile example of something that happens on a daily basis in companies from all over the world. Talented people wanting to leave a company isn’t something new nor it’s necessarily problematic. After all, talented professionals always want a combination of growth and challenges, so it’s natural that they want to work with the businesses that provide them with it.

The problem starts when your most talented people aren’t leaving you because of personal reasons but because they have problems with the direction you’re taking and the decisions you’re making. 

Messi didn’t want to leave Barcelona out of a personal desire to play for another club. Throughout the year he made it pretty clear that he didn’t agree with the board on many decisions, leaving warning signs all over the place that the directors decided to ignore. After all, Messi and Barcelona are synonyms, so Lionel wouldn’t abandon the club out of those disagreements. But that’s precisely the problem – when you believe that you have your talent locked in.

A lot of things can lead you to believe that. You might be the biggest company in your sector, pay the highest salaries, or be one of the few businesses in a niche sector. However, none of those reasons will prevent people from leaving you if you don’t take care of them. That’s especially true with talented people that in one way or another will always find new opportunities elsewhere.

That means that you can’t behave like Barça’s board of directors. You need to be on the lookout to pick up the warning signs your talented collaborators might be giving you. Sometimes they might be subtle about them, other times they’ll be far more vocal. Either way, if you aren’t listening, then you’re already in trouble.

Naturally, being on the lookout doesn’t mean you have to be paranoid. You have to develop a solid talent retention strategy and trust it while also keeping an open mind to adjust it as you go. We’ve already discussed in this series how you can retain talent but I think we need to take a deeper dive into those tips taking Messi’s case as an example of what you shouldn’t do.

 

Listen to Your Talent 

One of the biggest mistakes of Barcelona’s board was to dismiss Messi’s criticism over the years. The Argentinian star pointed out again and again that he felt that the team needed an extra talent boost if it was to aspire to win as many competitions as possible. But the directors ignored their most important player and followed their own agenda, signing on expensive players that didn’t perform as expected, hiring managers that weren’t top-level, and selling talented young talent.

The results are there for all to see. Barcelona lost the last La Liga throwing away a strategic advantage, and was unceremoniously eliminated from the last 3 editions of the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s most prominent tournament. It was obvious for everyone that Messi was right when he said that Barcelona wasn’t the team it used to be but the directors refused to believe.

Now, would things have been different if they listened to Messi? Not necessarily. But just by listening to the club’s biggest star and acting accordingly would have shown Messi that his opinion was valued. That’s what a good leader does – they listen to what the talent has to say and gives it thoughtful consideration. 

Of course, you need to ensure that there are open channels for your talent to reach you with their feedback. Messi probably doesn’t need them because any interview, rumor or Instagram post coming from him can stir up a response. At a corporate level and with other kinds of talent, it’s important to show that you have your doors open to whatever anyone has to say about your company and how you do things. 

 

Invest in Your Talent

Surely Messi wasn’t going to abandon Barcelona because the club didn’t invest in him. According to Forbes, Lionel is the 3rd highest-paid athlete in the world thanks to his salary, winnings, and endorsements. Yet, money isn’t everything when it comes to talent. Naturally, paying handsomely for talent as extraordinary as Messi’s is a must if you want to retain it but you have to invest even more.

In Barça’s case, the board could have invested better in the squad, making a bigger effort to retain Neymar, the Brazilian star now on France’s PSG, or developing a stronger youth squad to nurture the first team. Instead, directors went nuts shopping players without a plan and selling promising youngsters that didn’t have enough room.

What does this tell you? That you need to show your talent that you got their back. Paying an above-average salary won’t prevent a talented professional from leaving you to go with the competition, simply because poaching talent with money is a common practice nowadays. Rather than that, you have to invest in a strong team that makes talented people feel comfortable.

That means two things. First, you have to put talented people to work with either equally talented professionals or alongside promising junior staffers. Then, you need to provide them with the necessary infrastructure for them to thrive, from the best equipment you can afford to the perks that build a comfortable corporate culture (flexible hours, remote work, any recognition you can think of).

 

Provide Clear Progress Paths

Another major factor that fueled Messi’s desire to leave Barcelona had to do with his need for accomplishment. As it happens with the most talented people, Lionel wanted to win all the tournaments the club played. However, the chaotic direction of the board thwarted that, simply because the club didn’t seem to support him with the best players and managers nor with a sound strategy.

When Messi’s future was being discussed, a lot of people were convinced that he was going to end up in Manchester City, the Premier League club managed by Messi’s former manager, Josep “Pep” Guardiola. Most of those people said that Messi wanted to reunite with Guardiola to relive their glory days in Barcelona. However, Pep’s presence was just one of the reasons for Lio’s possible departure to Manchester.

Aside from the fact that few clubs in the world could pay Messi’s salary, Manchester City had a robust project that balances some of the best players today (including Messi’s close friend and countryman, Sergio Agüero) with junior talent and a precise football style that fits Lionel’s like a glove. You could say that Messi also wanted to leave to keep progressing in his career which, up to that point, had become stagnant.

Everyone wants to be part of a winning team – including your talent. So, you have to make sure that they see that they can fulfill themselves on a professional level by sticking with you. You can do so with a combination of things. You need to keep your talent working on relevant projects that challenge them. You have to add to their professional progression by providing them with training in new technologies and skills. And you must be sure that they see how instrumental they are for the success of the company, something that can be achieved with recognition and promotions.

 

Do Your Best

In the end, you’ll have to accept that talent might go elsewhere regardless of what you do. Following the tips above won’t necessarily prevent talented professionals from leaving you, as there are plenty of reasons why someone would want to make a change. However, using these suggestions will surely limit the number of talented people that might want to leave, simply because those tips will show them how important you consider talent to be.

Of course, you can ignore all of that and stick to the belief that you’re the best place to work in the entire world and that you’re already doing a lot for your collaborators. That won’t prevent your own “Messis” from leaving you, though. There’s always room for improvement and in the second your talent detects that you aren’t doing your best, that’s precisely the moment when they start entertaining the idea of leaving you.

Don’t believe me? Look in Barcelona’s direction right now and pay attention: there’s still turmoil surrounding the Ciutat Comtal because, behind Messi’s commitment to the squad, beyond his goals, smiles, and celebrations. Maybe the damage is already done and the most talented player in the world will play next season elsewhere. You don’t want your Messi to go “play” with another team, do you?

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