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Retain IT Talent by Instilling a Sense of Ownership

Retain IT Talent by Instilling a Sense of Ownership

With predictions of an IT worker shortage in the air, smaller employers will have to work hard at retaining their most important assets -- their talent. Not every company can compete on salary, but you can give your employees a place they'd be reluctant to leave, writes Guidance CEO Jason Meugniot.

How can smaller employers contend in today's competitive hiring market? By offering employees what large organizations often can't: a say in how the business is run and the freedom to explore and take risks.

The key is getting employees invested in the organization's success at a deep level -- creating a sense of ownership that isn't quickly forfeited when other offers come.

This message couldn't be timelier.

What's the Secret?

There are plenty of reports that warn of an IT worker shortage -- a recent CIO Insight analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for one. While there are rebuttals saying the shortage is overstated, the industry's fight for more H-1B visas -- allowing more trained workers from overseas -- certainly indicates a need for more talent.

The bottom line: IT leaders say that retaining IT talent is the No. 1 priority for CIOs, according to a survey conducted by the Society for Information Management (SIM). Any manager who's struggled to fill an open position can certainly appreciate the benefits of retaining good employees.

But what's the secret? Salaries and benefits are important, for sure. But employers have it in their power to offer something even more valuable: an attractive lifestyle. That is, a work environment that lets IT pros invent, create, manage and take risks, while maintaining a balance between work, family and play.

It's about providing a different kind of place to work. That involves a structure designed to give employees a certain level of involvement in the parts of the business that affect them: client relationships, company goals (that they'll be expected to help achieve) and the environment of the workplace itself.

Choose Your Clients and Partners Carefully.

Few things make a job miserable faster than working for a client or with a partner who is rude, unappreciative, unrealistic or just plain mean. In my experience, the nature of these working relationships is one of the biggest factors to determine whether a job is fulfilling or frustrating. It's also the place where companies often fall short, holding on to malfunctioning -- or even abusive -- client relationships for fear of losing revenue.

Guidance has made it a policy to only work with people who have integrity, who show respect and, frankly, who are nice. Decide what kind of people you want to work with, then seek them out and weed out or reject those who don't meet the standards. This may sound risky -- what company wants to turn down work? -- but in the end you and your employees will be much happier for it. Realize what's at stake: problem clients may very well drive away your star employees.

When you're pitching new business, take note of any aggressive or defensive behavior and language. Watch how the company's team members treat you and each other -- especially how they treat their own subordinates. Some good signs include clients who ask insightful questions, those who are honest about the reality of their situation (they're not sugar-coating), those who willingly acknowledge deficiencies, and those who are fair when the conversation turns to fees and mutual obligations.

Not every company can realistically resign a problem client or turn down work. In those cases, clearly communicate your values, how you treat others and how you expect to be treated, then stand your ground. Your employees will appreciate the support.

Give Employees a Real Stake in Decisions That Affect Them

This can apply to how the business itself is run or to the "rules" that affect their everyday work environments.

Let employees put their expertise into practice by setting up oversight committees and putting them in charge of the quality of the company's deliverables in that area. For example, we have committees that oversee our work related to creative, user experience, technical aspects and others. The opportunity to join a committee is optional and is reserved for those who've been with the company for at least a year. Committee members are responsible for determining the direction of their group, and they have control over the technology and methodology used in our processes. As a result, they develop leadership skills and they gain a clear path to C-level advancement.

But go even further. Include employees in the company's overall goal-planning by asking where they want the company to go and giving them responsibility to make it happen. On the flip side, ask them what they need from the company, and give it to them when you can.

Family First

Does an employee have a sick child or another loved one that needs some immediate attention? Let him or her go home. An employee who's worried about someone at home is understandably distracted from work anyway. If there's even a second thought -- weighing the need to be by someone's side against possible negative consequences at work -- you've already lost some loyalty in the mind of that employee.

A while back an employee's spouse contacted me after an illness to tell me how much it meant to her that her husband was encouraged to be with her and her small child while she recovered. There's a sincere relationship being built here -- and real relationships are not quickly abandoned.

So far these suggestions might require a certain level of authority to implement. But there are plenty of ways to foster enthusiasm and ownership within your team that anyone can put into practice. Here are just a few:

  • Frequent -- and public -- acknowledgement: Sincere recognition can be intoxicating, and it doesn't cost a thing. Post on the walls quotes from clients who acknowledge employees with accolades or unsolicited kudos, or reserve a portion of a meeting for an open mic acknowledgment session so employees can publicly acknowledge an individual or a team for an achievement.
  • Build community: Form groups (we call them "communities") around common interests or common tasks and encourage them to meet regularly, share ideas or just get to know one another. Keep them informal and free from obligation -- these are not committees carrying out assignments, they're groups that serve the interests of their members.

    For example, we have a developer community that meets during lunch on Wednesdays in the conference room. The company sponsors lunch, and the group manages its own agenda. They talk about new innovations in technical development, or share what they're working on and what they're excited about. A huge benefit is that now we have people talking and sharing across departments, rather than working in isolation. It's an intentional way for employees to collaborate and share ideas and expertise across the organization -- and to build relationships.

In a technology services company, employees often are the greatest asset of the business. Making IT retention the No. 1 priority means making employees the No. 1 priority. In doing so, companies can save the costs of rehiring, retraining and rebuilding client relationships after the all-too-familiar upset that occurs when a key employee leaves. These savings can often be a factor of 3 to 10 times the cost of the employee's salary. In my experience, that's a pretty good reason to give proven ideas like these a try. Not every company can compete on salary, but you can give your employees a place they'd be reluctant to leave.


Jason Meugniot is owner & CEO of Guidance, a specialized technology advisor that envisions, builds and supports Web technology solutions that help businesses thrive online.


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