2009 is one year that none of us will ever forget. We all had to shrink to squeeze through the eye of the storm, and we had to learn how to compete in a completely new game. Our competitors, we found, are no longer in our neighborhoods or on the other side of town. They are on the other side of the world. And they are awake as we try to sleep.

Meanwhile, many of the partners we counted on - our banks and our suppliers - are no longer around. The sand has shifted beneath our feet. But we are still standing, which has been a test of our leadership, our competitiveness, our self-discipline, our optimism, and our resilience. We've made it through.

But we have all changed. Some companies have downsized, and others have become substantially faster. Hopefully, however, we have all become a little smarter. We haven't had much time to assess what we've been through or how we will be different this year, and that is a concern.

Some of the best leaders, historically, have been able to balance two factors - being able to reflect on all the forces we're facing and then acting faster than our competitors - but that time between reflecting and acting has almost disappeared completely. Many leaders I've spoken with say they cherish their time on planes because they can be alone with a pad and pen and their own thoughts.

We know from a survey we just conducted that leaders are concerned about how to maintain momentum, how to prioritize now that their companies are half their former size, and how to develop and retain their top talent.

Now is the time to make sure we are connecting in very real ways with our top performers. As leaders, one of our most important challenges this year is to make sure that our top performers (and those who have the potential to become top performers) know how extremely important they are to us. We need to recognize them and keep them engaged, motivated, and enthused about their future with us.

Nothing is more important now than making sure that we keep our top talent because that is ultimately what distinguishes us. Everything else can be copied by any of our competitors, and at lightning speed.

To make sure that we don't lose any of our top performers, we have to make sure they understand, in no uncertain terms, that we are intent on re-creating a collaborative, innovative, top-performing organization and that they are a vital part of our vision for the company's future.

We need to engage and inspire them, but that starts by clearing up a misconception that is held by many leaders, who mistakenly believe that top performers will inspire and raise the level of performance of everyone else around them. We have found that the exact opposite is what top performers are looking for.

One thing that we've learned for certain about top performers is that they want to be connected with other top performers. They do not want to be working side-by-side with average performers, let alone with someone who will slack off and not complete his part of an important project on time. As a result, we are currently helping companies around the world to create situations in which their elite performers push one another to levels they would never reach if they were working with less-accomplished colleagues.

This year, one of the primary goals of leaders should be to bring together your company's stars to work side-by-side on a major initiative. That's what engages top performers. They want to be part of a winning team, and they want to make a real difference.

Engage top performers

"The economy really tasked our people to become more motivated and more efficient," says Brandon Raasch, director of human resources at West Marine Products. At the same time, however, Raash says he had to focus on helping his top performers to develop new talents so that they could be the kind of leaders West Marine Products needed to move into the future.

What has he been focused on most?

He has worked with them individually and as teams to improve efficiency, communication, and performance, while reducing conflict, he said. By focusing on his top performers, Raasch has shown them that they are truly valued and important to the organization's success.

Developing the potential of top performers is very strategic and very personal. It begins with noticing that somebody has potential, then coaching and grooming them in a very individual way.

We have been helping one multinational firm to review their talent and develop a formal succession planning process. This provides top performers with the recognition that they deserve, while securing the company's future.

They have developed a 70-20-10 development plan (10 percent of a high-potential employee's learning should be done in a classroom, 20 percent with individual coaching, and 70 percent through experiences). The company reviews the next steps in the job of a top performer, identifies the new skills that need to be acquired, and then builds a development plan around those gaps.

The idea is that most of the gaps will be filled with experiences. Taking on special projects and new assignments and moving around to different functions helps to open new doors for the individual. Coaching and classes to acquire new skills then rounds out the learning process.

Design development programs

Bob O'Leary, executive vice president of Philadelphia Insurance Companies, feels that implementing development programs not only helps the company as a whole, but also motivates employees to stand behind their leaders.

"The respect that leaders generate is almost self-fulfilling," O'Leary adds. "By approaching business in a totally different manner than before, leaders generate respect from their people. It becomes almost contagious."

With people being asked to do more and more with fewer resources, development programs are essential to the future of an organization. Development programs are entirely customizable based on organization needs.

The following are some examples of what those programs might look like. Your company may use a combination of these ideas, or it might seek out an approach entirely specialized to suit its specific goals.

Coaching. Customized, in-depth coaching processes and development plans from an objective, third-party coach can help pinpoint abilities, motivations, and growth opportunities.

Action learning. Employee development programs can help organizations solve critical and complex organizational problems in real time, while simultaneously building strong leaders. This form of "learning by doing" helps leadership teams be more willing to learn from one another, become more flexible, and be better able to shoulder difficult tasks.

360-degree feedback. This process sheds light on areas in which employees can improve, especially related to how co-workers feel about their performance. The feedback also provides guidance for tapping into strengths and taking the steps necessary to make real change.

Performance management system. This system helps tie performance to overall strategy. A performance management system not only enables the company to measure and monitor performance, it also helps integrate an understanding of individual motivations with clear expectations and open lines of communication.

Top talent retention. This program is where a consultant works one-on-one with top performers to help them assess their talents, identify hidden potential, and clarify their goals, while linking their abilities and interests with the needs of the organization. Increasing top employees' feelings of value increases loyalty and tenure.

Validation study. This process helps a company get a clear sense of their top performers and their strengths, what distinguishes them, and how to both hire people similar to your top talent, and develop high potential employees who are currently on board.

The right emphasis

As we recover from these very difficult times, nothing is more important than developing top talent. Leaders must recognize that their top talent, and those who have the potential to become their next top performers, are all looking to them more closely and intently than ever before.

Leaders may have myriad reasons to spend budgeted dollars elsewhere. But the company's future depends upon their having a clear understanding of the talent they want to develop.

What are the competencies you need to be known for - innovation, collaboration, resilience, or optimism? You need to be very clear about the competencies for which your company will be known. Then determine who in your company possesses those competencies. That's where you want to focus.

As markets collapse and jobs disappear, your top performers are looking to you - their leader - to hear the truth about what is going on and to have their concerns replaced with confidence. To have confidence, they need to know that your company has a plan.

Your top performers will get you there, but they need to know that they are fundamental to your plan. Invest in them, build upon their strengths, surround yourself with them, and celebrate them. They are your company's future, and if you don't recognize them, your competitors will. T+D