Skip to main content

A Framework for Recruiting & Retaining High Performers

Anyone can hire but not everyone can find, hire and retain a high performer.

No matter how many space cadets you have interviewed or how many awesome people have slipped through your fingers, the high performer you dream of does exist and is available.

Mind you, attracting and retaining them is a skill and may require you to fine tune some aspects of your own game to reel them in. Success requires strong leadership throughout the whole process; if you fail to lead you will lose.

For most leaders your primary skill is an industry skill you perfected over 10,000 hours. As a result of that skill, you find yourself in charge and needing to recruit and retain high performers, with no framework for doing so. So let me offer you a framework.

Recruiting and retaining high performers parallels the way a café owner attracts a passerby into their café, encourages them to buy and then over time creates a loyal customer. The model is to attract, recruit and retain. If at any stage in the process the café owner fails, a slow decline of their business begins.

Like you, the cafe owner cannot afford to attract, recruit and retain people who bring negative energy. Nor can they afford people who scare away other high performers, who require excessive attention, who give nothing and who wont leave. Obviously they need people who allow their business to thrive!

Like you, the café owner can experience bewilderment at the riffraff that comes in. They find it astonishing! They know they have a great location, have put out a great sign, play great music for their guests, put their best meals on the menu and smile as they serve. Yet they keep getting the wrong people?!

“You should see the people that come through here! It’s like they can’t even think!”

The truth is, something is wrong in their process. Attracting the right prospect is not an organic experience; it is a science that when done well looks organic.

Stage 1: Attention

Obviously the first stage is to attract the right prospect’s attention.

Your business brain can observe that if a cafe has 1000 people pass by each day and of those perhaps 450 are the ideal prospect, if none are coming in something must be broken.

Like you, the Café owner can’t see what is broken; they are too close to it. They are doing their best and burning out, so they conclude the ideal prospect mustn’t exist, offering stories to justify their thinking.

The first question in the framework to ask is:

How many ideal prospects even know the café/job exists?

Do 1000 people know about the role you need to fill or is it just the three people who you frustratingly mentioned it to at a BBQ? Or maybe you have been ‘asking around’?

If 1000 people do know of the role, is it a quality 1000 or just a random selection of people with a low likelihood of the drive and skill you need? An advertisement on the notice board at Coles is going to get different attention than an advertisement in an in-flight magazine.

If you are not finding high performers you either need to have more people know about the role, or advertise in a more prospect rich environment.

Make sure that:

  • You constantly advertise for high performers, not just when you think you need one.
  • Plenty of people know the role exists.
  • You mention the role to colleagues who have networks of high performers.
  • Adds are in places that high performers congregate. – Conferences, clubs, industry events.

Note: Online job platforms like Seek are not necessarily where you find a high performer. It is where you find seekers. Think differently. 

Stage 2 : Be More Specific

The second stage is to clearly state what the role involves.

The ideal prospect can’t passionately commit to general options like ‘Todays special’, ‘Our sandwich’ and ‘Mum’s chicken.’ Just as they cannot passionately commit to vague job descriptions like ‘Dynamic company’, ‘Team focused’ or ‘Growth opportunities.’

These descriptions are too general and rose coloured. The ideal prospects will become tentative and skeptical amid the ambiguity. They um and err. They ponder what other places/jobs elsewhere could be a better option. Employers see the prospect as being uncertain and lacking commitment, yet the prospects lack of decision is a reflection of the employer’s lack of transparency.

The question at this point in the framework is:

How blunt and specific is the menu/job summary about exactly what the prospect will experience if they commit?

If a café puts a sign out announcing “coffee and muffin for $7” they should not get mad when they do not attract a lunch crowd. If they want a lunch crowd the sign better say “5 world class lunch dishes served today with wine or coffee.”

Likewise get your messaging very specific on what the role entails day-to-day and what you need from someone in that role.

Avoid: “I need a self driven person with strong customer service who would work well in a family environment.” A promotion like this fails because everyone thinks they fit this description and a legitimate high performer thinks it sounds like a crock!

You know and the high performer knows that the truth of the role could be written as: “The role includes working in a basement packing boxes on your own (self driven). You will be thrown last-minute orders that we all need to make happen in a panic (team player). Our customers are fickle and leave easily so always be nice even when they are being absurd (customer service). It’s a small team and it can be confusing who is your boss sometimes (family).”

Do not dress up the role you are advertising, no one likes to be tricked. Tell it as it is. That way you know that those who turn up for the interview are the right candidates.

Reluctance to be this clear about roles is misguided. Owners and leaders fear the rejection of people turning their nose up at the role and they fear the role may not be filled if people know the truth about it. However a rose coloured pitch is not the answer. It will only result in an employee who should not be in the role, who resents they were tricked and who will require a great deal of management to keep them in the role.

If no one applies you need to make sure more people know about the role (back to stage one) and if only a handful apply they are probably very good matches.

Make sure you outline:

  • Exactly what they would be doing day-to-day.
  • How they will be measured.
  • What challenges they can expect.
  • What rewards they can expect based on KPI’s.


Stage 3 – Are We A Match?

The third stage is a two-way interview to see if this is a match for both parties. A great café owner knows what is in each meal so will check if the prospect likes specific ingredients before they suggest they order it. The conversation is very specifically focused on assessing if the prospect will both enjoy the meal/role and possibly love it enough to come back again and again.

The question in the third part of the framework is:

Will you enjoy and thrive doing these activities daily, for an extended period?

If you have cast a wide net and have been clear on what the role entails, those that make it to the interview will not be a waste of your time. If done really well there should only be a few to interview, with the skills required, all of who are a match.

Interview for two things:

In the interview you are essentially looking for two qualities.

  1. Are they a cultural fit to your team?
  2. Do they have the capacity to learn?

If the applicant does not display early signs of a being a cultural fit do not expect to be able to develop it in them later; that would be foolish.

When assessing their cultural fit, ask yourself questions like:

  • Do I like them?
  • Do I trust them?
  • At a BBQ would I enjoy a chat or would I avoid them?
  • Do I think I could have an honest conversation with them?
  • Do I respect them?

Also be looking for their capacity to learn. If they can learn then you can teach them; any gaps in their skills can quickly be addressed.

To assess learning capacity, in the interview ask them “Can I can teach them something while you’re here?” Then show them a subtlety to how you do an activity in the advertised role. If they consistently tell you that “they know” or that they “have done it before” do not take confidence from this. The assessment you are leading is not about present skill set, it is about their ability to learn.

Teach them more until something is new and they need to learn it. If at the end you do not have confidence that they picked up how you want it done and they could now do it, they are unlikely to be a match. If however they are curious, attempt to learn it, openly make mistakes or add some ideas to the method, you are most likely on a winner.

Introduce accountability in the interview:

During the interview, the presence and referencing of the job description is vital. Unfortunately most job descriptions are old documents that have been poorly revised and are essentially useless. For the leader the job description has seemed too much work to revise and “close enough” is their approach. This is just stupidity. This is the document the high performer will be held accountable to, possibly for years! If you have a poor foundation, do not expect a skyscraper.

When a job description accurately outlines the behaviors of a high performer in the role, you can explain to your prospect that the successful applicant will be measured by the fulfillment of these.

For example:

  • Call all customers enquiries back within 4 hours.
  • Make 10 proactive calls a week to legitimate new leads – Leaving a message is measured as a zero.
  • Follow all lodgments through to completion; anticipating that if you have days off you must never depart with a lodgment pending.

Statements like these are binary, measurable, black and white. When you are clear, in no uncertain terms about specific performance behaviors and the high accountability to those, all parties are set up for either ‘Let’s do this’ or ‘Um… no deal’. The decision will be obvious.

The right prospect they will see the clarity of the tasks and light up!

The wrong prospect will shrink away, quickly pointing out how some of those expectations may not always be possible.

Just as you are measuring the applicant, the applicant will be measuring you to see if they can crawl out of some accountability if needed. A vague job description telegraphs that they will be able to worm out of everything.

Bonus tip:

In the late part of the interview, if you think they may work out, mention that you know they probably wouldn’t work here forever and that if you knew what they wanted to move onto next, you could try to help them get there. Resourcing them with relevant training, opportunities and introductions.

We are doing this so that from day one they know they can talk to us about leaving, reducing the likelihood that we get a resignation out of the blue. Further, because it increases our ability to provoke their engagement and satisfaction while in the role.

Many owners think they ask this question in the interview but they are using a different question, like what is your 3 – 5 year plan? In my experience, most people don’t think in plans, but they do know what interests them or what they want to do next, so ask that instead.


Stage 4: Guidance

Most go wrong at this stage as they figure a high performer can look after them selves without guidance. That is not correct.

If you enter a café and the meal you order and the way it is served is new to you, you look to the owner for guidance on how to eat it. Sure you have eaten thousands of meals around the world and could jump in but this is a new dish with subtleties. You’d appreciate the owner walking you through the customs of how the dish is eaten for the most enjoyment. “Taste this first, them mix it with this.”

Likewise, high performers also need this guidance in their job until they have proved otherwise.

At this point in the framework the question is:

How can the owner/leader best set the prospect up to be an absolute master in their role, indefinitely?

If you are not an experienced hirer, it is easy to presume that because your new employ has the right credentials and is keen for the new role, they will be able to get into things without a lot from you. So after a few days you check in with them on things that don’t matter. “So have you found everything alright? They showed you where the coffee machine is? Do you need anything? You feel like you understand everything? Great.” These are all polite and a nice part of the welcome, yet if you want performance you need to put guidance work in early.

Allocate three months to getting them awesome. This is what the ‘trial period’ is for yet rarely utilized.

Walk them through tasks explaining how you assess if the task was done well, explaining that you appreciate there will be a learning period but after that time they would be expected to do it as shown, consistently.

For example:

When we answer the phone to a new customer always:

  • Answer with energy and warmth.
  • Close any task you were working on or walk away from any distraction.
  • Get their essential details and a clear idea of what they were looking for from us.
  • Establish a good time for a specialist to call them back or to set up a meeting.
  • If there is an opportunity to resource them prior to a specialist calling them back, do so. Do not however just send items for the sake of it, accurately customize.

When sending documents to our referral partner:

  • All documentation should be moved to the next stage, as complete, within 24hours.
  • A ‘complete’ document means that our partner would not need to call us for further information except in particularly unique circumstances.
  • If you are taking leave, all documentation must be complete before you leave with no files in a grey area. Never turn a blind eye to a file.

In any role there will be lots to learn but select a few things for them to get right in the first week, then some for the next and the next. Then train them and support them on these. No matter their experience, do not presume they know how to do things. Do not be intimidated by their confidence. Measure them by their results not their words.

Beyond this, do performance reviews every week for a month, then every two weeks and then monthly. Consistently measuring them to the job description and your standards.

It can sound a harsh process, almost micro managing, but it is just the standard art of training to expectations. If you do not do this consistently from day one, even the most elite performer will have their standards fade. Unconsciously taking short cuts they notice that details are allowed to slip through the cracks and learn that is just how it is done in this organization.

Lead them:

Your role in the first three months is to train them, measure them and let them know how they are doing. If you don’t think they are going to cut it in the role, let them know early. Discuss it with them, explaining you are keen to keep them on but you need A,B & C to be done better and allow them to improve rather than thinking they should be able to read your mind.

At the end of three months there should be no surprises for either party. If the employee is being let go or they want to leave, we all typically know that outcome is coming. At this time both parties agree that the relationship “is not a match”. On departure from the role both parties do their best to set the other up for success. The applicant may not be good at doing this, but it remains in your interest to help them into their future; it’s all good will.

On the other had, if this person is a match for the role, we now have an employee who is not only trained but is comfortable with regular accountability and training.


Stage 5: Cement

Over time a café owner and a prospect may discover they are a particularly good match. It’s been a long and prosperous relationship for all parties so it is time for a unique deal; taking the relationship to the next level. A deal that is not on the regular menu.

“I have an amazing dish you must try! I would love to cook it for you but it is only worth doing for eight people, do you have some friends you could bring one night? The wine would be on me!”

“Yes! Fantastic! Two of the girls don’t eat meat, would that be a problem?”

“Not at all. Lock it in.”

This is customization and cements the relationship. In business it is tricky as it involves commission, ownership and similar, but it is both possible and crucial.

They key question at this point is:

What do we both want next so we both feel lucky and can thrive?

Customization does not mean pandering to every wish of a high performer in fear they may leave. It means critically looking at salary, commissions, incentives and benefits to assess if there is good reason for them to stay and also continuously perform at a high level?

The mistakes at this stage:

Mistake #1: Paying overs and not getting much in return.

A common mistake when customizing a salary to attract or retain a high performer is paying too much before experiencing evidence of what they can do in your organization or will do in the future. A mistake like this means you keep paying them good money while waiting for them to do a better job.

Always tie salary increases to key performance milestones; increasing their salary progressively. This especially applies to new hires that appear like they could be the chosen one. It never matters what someone has done somewhere else, they have to do it for you.

If you put an employee on a great salary without holding them accountable to a specific level of performance, it is very difficult to wind the dollars back, while also seeking to increase their performance. Basically you will be stuffed.

When a person has been paid a lot for not doing too much, that relationship is lost. You’ve created a lazy person now. Negotiate what you can with them to get a better deal and a better performance, then invest the bulk of your effort into those who are working really hard to achieve the next income bracket (or work on the previous steps for a new hire).

Always graduate a salary increase so you can stop the increase at intervals if performance is not adequate.

Mistake #2 : Taking too long to allow ownership.

For the really high performer, eventually some sort of ownership/partnership of the business needs to be on the table.

The mistake here is leadership takes too long to create the opportunity for the high performer to buy-in or receive shares. Leadership responds to status requests with “Yeah, soon. We’re working on it.” Leaving the employee so frustrated, their energy inevitably moves from growing the business to worrying about negotiations.

Unintentionally the high performer begins holding back their performance; feeling messed around on the ownership subject. Over time they begin to recognize that if they do perform really well, they increase the value of the business and make it even harder for them to buy.

At this point the leader throws the cause of the delay back at that high performer saying “I want you to buy in but you need to be patient. Honestly, your performance lately has been a bit disappointing and that is not helping.”

The truth is that the leader isn’t leading. They have been too slow to get the ownership opportunity sorted one way or the other. In the process they are crushing the high performer who is desperate for the next stage of growth. Either make it happen or take it off the table and offer something else that could work for all parties.

Leaders are slow and cautious in making decision on ownership, frankly because you have never done it before. With the major concerns about what handing over ownership would mean to you personally.

There is much to discuss here (for another day) but one element that will make progress easier is recognizing that much of the stalling is because leaders are scared of mistake #1 – giving too much away and not receiving anything in return.

I have seen people hand over significant slices of their business in anticipation that the recipient will now provide an incredible service to the business, only to be disappointed, poorer and have diluted control. What a mess.

A better model is to have them earn ownership over time, structured to reward performance and longevity.

If there is 10% of the company up for grabs, perhaps they earn 1% after 6 months, 2% after 12months, 3% after 24months and 4% after 36 months; a total of 10% over 3 years if specific KPIs are hit. This way if it goes wrong you have less of the business at risk and if it goes right your high performer is rewarded more and more the longer it continues.

I am not saying that this is the best way to do it. I am saying that if you do not get innovative and decisive on these matters, high performers will get disgruntled and leave. They are just like a loyal customer at a cafe, they will suffer a few mistakes or inconvenience initially, but if it looks like it is going to be a regular occurrence they will head somewhere they can have the experience they want.


Sign up to Mark’s business blog

Live More Business 

Sign up to Mark’s performance blog

Live More Growth