A lot is written about how to attract and retain talented young staff. And, right now, in the midst of a global recession, even more is being written about how to get them engaged and passionate about what they are doing. But a recent survey from CEB (the Corporate Executive Board) reminds us not to think that older, top level staff are settled, focused and sticking around.

“Most companies think that in the downturn employees, especially senior leaders, are just grateful to have a job,” says Jean Martin, executive director of the CEB’s Corporate Leadership Council. In fact, valued players are increasingly likely to be looking around. Among high-potential employees (identified as such by their employers) one out of four plans on quitting in the next 12 months. The best way to motivate the top group? Money. They are Baby Boomers after all. Read more about what TomorrowToday has to say on generations in the financial crisis.

The CEB survey shows that employee engagement is falling faster among top executives than any other group. Only 13% of senior executives at the vice-presidential level or higher say they are “willing to go above and beyond what is expected of them”—a decline from 29% two years ago. In the December 2008 survey of the CEB’s 79,000 member employees worldwide at 123 organizations, 20% of all respondents said they were disengaged – that was only 10% two years ago.

CEB says compensation-based incentives are three times as likely to improve engagement among senior executives as among the workforce as a whole. To keep high-potential employees from defecting, companies should be investing in rewarding them and have a rigorous performance-management process in place to ensure a genuine meritocracy.

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