Salveson Stetson Group recently conducted a survey of executive attitudes to making a job change in the midst of the pandemic. As you might imagine, the appetite for making a change has shrunken significantly given the uncertainty that the global health crisis has put on businesses. In fact, we estimate that interest in switching companies has decreased by 50% since March. Two-thirds of our respondents indicated they would not make a job change at the present time.

As a CFO, this might give you some comfort that your best and brightest are in no danger of jumping ship at a time when you probably need their talents more than any other time in your work together.

By and large, you would be right, except in the case of your “high potentials.” In fact, the only group of executives where a plurality of respondents maintained a high degree of interest in making a change were those at the level just below the C-suite. In other words, your most senior direct reports — your clear succession candidates — are the team members you are at the highest risk of losing right now.

There are several reasons why this might be the case. High potentials may see the time horizon for advancement extended due to the pandemic or they may have some concerns about the long-term impact of the crisis on your industry or company. They may simply be impatient, as many ambitious executives are when they feel like their career advancement has stalled. Regardless of the rationale, however, if you’re not talking to them about these issues, I can guarantee you they are creating their own narratives, many of which end with them walking out the door.

So, unless you are looking forward to the possibility of replacing some key roles during the worst economic crisis of a generation, here are some suggestions for to how to keep your high potentials in the fold.

  • Communicate regularly and one-on-one. With everyone working flat out, it’s easy for CFOs to keep their heads down and focus on the critical tasks at hand. However, checking in with your directs regarding their challenges and the personal impact the crisis is having on them as leaders and individuals goes a long way to instilling loyalty. Some may be fine, but others may not, and they will really appreciate you taking a personal interest.
  • Offer opportunities to learn. If anything, the crisis has presented chances for you and your organization to do things differently. Make sure that your directs are not just doing the same things better but are offered chances to broaden their skill sets.
  • Be future-focused. There will be life after the pandemic and getting your high potentials involved in planning for that future keeps them engaged.
  • Be open. If plans have changed due to the pandemic, let them know. If the prospects for advancement in the company will be limited over a duration of time, better your high potentials know that, and you and they can plan accordingly versus having them come into your office and resign without warning.

If the high potentials on a CFO’s team aren’t getting this type of interaction, they may well be thinking it’s a good time to evaluate their career priorities over the near- and intermediate-term. Lack of interaction may indicate a more entrenched company point of view of talent overall. We all serve at the pleasure of our employers, but if it feels like your employer is stuck in place, high potentials may feel compelled to take a look outside, particularly if they are working in a company or industry where the prospects of a full recovery are in doubt.

Conversely, as a leader, the stress of the pandemic crisis also serves as a crucible in which you can further evaluate the capabilities of your direct reports. Perhaps those who looked like strong succession candidates under normal business conditions have withered in the heat of the current environment, while others who may have been flying below radar have stepped up to the challenge. In either case, update your own succession and development plans accordingly.

We have found that forward-thinking organizations are also viewing this as an opportunity to selectively stock up on talent. If you have the financial wherewithal, you might consider doing so as well. Staying in place means falling behind on talent always, but never more so than in the current crisis.

John Touey is a principal at executive search firm Salveson Stetson Group with 20 years of experience providing executive search, human resources, and management consulting services to organizations in the healthcare, financial services, utilities, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. Follow him @JohnTouey.

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