What’s the best gift for your top talent?

No, it’s not a hefty gift card or Super Bowl tickets.

The gift of a challenge goes farther than anything you can tie with a bow. A new, on-the-job opportunity, that stretches the thinking and actions of a staff member, sends a clear message from you of trust, confidence and true caring.

It’s exactly the gift that Anne, a high-potential employee at a communications agency, was hoping for when she and her manager sat down recently for a performance discussion.

Several years into her job, Anne and her boss have cultivated a solid work relationship. “I really like her, because she gives me opportunities to learn and grow on the job.”

Unfortunately, recent organizational changes at Anne’s firm have triggered new controls, oversight and bureaucracy—cultural dynamics that are throttling developmental practices. Additionally, raises and promotions are being delayed, indefinitely. The impact on Anne’s entrepreneurial spirit has been quite damaging.

“I keep hearing that I am doing great, but I’m not seeing opportunities for me to take on a new project or assignment. As a result, I feel like I am not making progress,” she explains.

Anne adds that she plans to start a job search once the New Year arrives. 

Don’t risk the loss of a great employee who you can keep excited and engaged, even during times of big or difficult change. These three gestures can signal that you value the skills of your employees, and want to help them grow in their career path.

Double booked on meetings? Who isn’t these days? Use your cramped schedule as an opportunity to have a team member represent you at an important project meeting that you can’t attend.  Provide a proper advance introduction to others who will be attending the meeting, so your team member doesn’t walk in or dial in cold to the meeting. 

Additionally, talk over the meeting agenda, purpose and even the personality dynamics of participants with your employee. Help them feel confident about what’s going to happen, how to contribute and what information you’ll need from the meeting. Be sure to hold a debrief call within a day or two of the meeting for your employee to discuss highlights and follow-up actions. 

Bring your team member to a customer meeting. Before you head out the door, task him to help you prepare by conducting some advance research or development meeting documents. Invite your staffer’s perspective on ways that your team could be doing even more for this customer, and how best to discuss these opportunities during the meeting. By giving your associate an opportunity to shine, the benefits will be mutual.

Give your employee a high-profile assignment that will show how much you value his or her contribution to your team – as well as their analytical skills.  I recall being asked by Tom, my former GE boss, to recommend a business book for his management team to read.  Tom knew that I was an avid reader, who enjoyed sharing highlights from new releases and major articles about our industry and competitors.  His confidence in me to select a book that became a developmental tool for his team was both an honor and morale booster of major proportion.  

Along with the book title, Tom asked for key takeaways and questions that would stimulate discussion during staff meetings – a tactic for keeping his team accountable for the reading assignment and engaged in learning together. Those conversations subsequently earned a new role and experience for me during staff meetings—discussion facilitator. Another perk!

It truly is better to give than to receive – during the holidays or at any time of the year.  Give the gift of trust and engagement to those on your team whom you treasure. You’ll both feel great – and that’s really what the spirit of this special season is all about.

I want to take this opportunity to thank you for the gift of continued support by reading my columns. Please enjoy this special time of year with family, friends – and your pets – and accept my best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 2014.

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda established Dulye & Co.  in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications and collaboration through an engaged workforce— a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.