Do your staff feel special? Source: Unsplash/Arlington Research.

Harvard Business Review

Case study: The real secret to retaining talent

Harvard Business Review
13 minute Read

Over the past several decades managers have had to adapt to a stark reality: individuals with unique talent can profoundly affect the value — and even the nature — of the work their organisations produce. A film studio can make a movie with or without Julia Roberts, but it won’t be the same movie. The Green Bay Packers can play football without quarterback Aaron Rodgers — but they will have to run a different offense. If a pharmaceutical company loses its star scientist, it will have to change its research program. If a hedge fund loses its investment guru, it will need to alter its approach to investing.

As the knowledge economy has taken over the business world, people with rare expertise and skills have become powerful — be they corporate executives, research scientists, money managers, artists, athletes, or celebrities. At the same time, technology and innovation have modernised the capital markets, making funding much easier to get and further shifting power from capital to talent. And while the earnings of talent in many domains have skyrocketed over the past four decades, nothing has matched topflight managers’ ability to extract value: Steve Ballmer made the vast majority of his $96 billion fortune by being Bill Gates’s first business manager. Eric Schmidt’s $24 billion net worth came from taking the reins of Google for a decade, and Meg Whitman’s $5 billion from serving as eBay’s CEO for 10 years.

Such eye-popping numbers have given rise to the belief that star performers are deeply motivated by compensation and that big monetary rewards are key to their recruitment and retention. There is a grain of truth to that. I’ve met plenty of CEOs who pump up the perceived value of their companies to inflate their stock-based compensation; activist hedge-fund managers who destroy companies for short-term gain; investment bankers who, in the pursuit of big fees, persuade their clients to make unwise acquisitions; and consultants who sell their clients work that they don’t need.

Yet that’s not whom I’m talking about here. None of those me-first people have the ability or the motivation to make their organisations or teams great for a sustained period. I can say with confidence that in my 40 years of working with people who truly are in the upper echelon of talent, I haven’t met a single one who is solely or even highly motivated by compensation.

Subscribe to keep reading

Get your first 30 days FREE
Learn more
Already a Plus member?


SmartCompany Plus

Sign in

To connect a sign in method the email must match the one on your SmartCompany Plus account.
Or use your email
Forgot your password?

Want some assistance?

Contact us on: or call the hotline: +61 (03) 8623 9900.