For years, savvy organizations have placed emphasis on identifying what we call leverage roles—those positions that have far greater impact on market and financial success than others. These are roles that tie directly to strategy execution, thus driving sustainable competitive advantage.
Contrary to popular thought, these roles do not just sit at the top of the org chart. Our recent research, as well as research by i4cp, has convinced us that these positions are distributed throughout the organization and include middle management, front line employees and even outside contractors. Think about these roles in this way: as the few bricks in a large wall that, if removed, would cause the entire wall to collapse. The wall might not collapse immediately, or even over a few months. But it would deteriorate over the next two to four years, as top-notch talent – occupying the company’s keystone positions in the wall – no longer hold its most essential roles.
These roles will vary by industry and organization. Google shelled out $650 million to buy a UK startup company (DeepMind Technologies) that employed 50 artificial-intelligence scientists at the time. And today, organizations including Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are spending millions in annual salaries for new AI jobs. As Brian Becker, Mark Huselid, and Richard Beatty point out in their book, The Differentiated Workforce, there are stark variations within the same industry. At the high-end department store chain Nordstrom, the personal shopper who helps affluent customers with their purchases is a leverage role along with fashion buyers, supply chain system designers, and customer insights marketers. But at Costco, the $116 billion no-frills retailer, the key positions include buyers and sourcing managers – not customer service people in stores. 
Next, organizations must ensure that they have the best talent in those leverage roles. Bain performed extensive organization audits on 25 global companies and collaborated with the Economist Intelligence Unit and what they learned was compelling. On average 15% of a company’s workforce are “A” players and this is consistent between the best-performing companies (top quartile) and the rest (average of the remaining three quartiles). The difference was that the best-performing companies disproportionately deployed their “A” players in their leverage roles. 
Once organizations identify their leverage roles and deploy their best talent in those roles, the work is not over. Organizations must develop strategies to retain the highly valuable talent in these roles that make or break success. What matters most to employees, what keeps them in your organization is not rocket science…the drivers of retention include leadership, development and career opportunities, and organizational environment, to name a few. Our own, on-going experience has provided better understanding which of those drivers is most important to each of the different leverage roles. It is not a one-size-fits-all.
The winners in 2018 will first ask themselves the following questions:
What are the strategic capabilities (and ultimately roles) necessary to drive sustainable competitive advantage?
Do we have the right individuals in those game-changing roles?
What matters most in retaining those critical leverage roles?
If CEOs, CHROs, and other business leaders are unable answer any one of these three questions, it’s time to rethink and refine your workforce and retention strategies.
This article is co-authored by Beverly Kaye, founder of Career Systems International and a member of i4cp’s Thought Leader Consortium ; Cile Johnson, SVP Enterprise Solutions, Career Systems International; and Lynn Cowart, VP Global Delivery, Career Systems International.