Motivating top talent in tight times

Having talented individuals on your technology staff is not enough. Getting them to deliver consistent high-quality results with an eye to increasing revenue while driving down costs is foremost on every IT manager's mind.

          Having talented individuals on your technology staff is not enough. Getting them to deliver consistent high-quality results with an eye to increasing revenue while driving down costs is foremost on every IT manager's mind. It can be a difficult challenge compounded by the loss of yesterday's "technology-for-technology's-sake" mind-set.

          So one critical IT management function is emerging in today's bottom-line-focused enterprise -- improve numbers and motivate staff. Even in a looser job market, no executive wants to see corporate knowledge walk out the door. Keeping stars in-house and on track is an evergreen issue.

          With many companies putting downward pressure on IT salaries in the current economic climate, CTOs and other tech executives are looking for non-compensatory ways to cultivate, reward, and motivate their staffers.

          Three tech execs share their programmes for cultivating and retaining top tech talent.

          Move up

          By and large, a move up the corporate ranks means a move away from information technology and into management. But not every technologist wants to be "rewarded" with a team to manage.

          "The hard-core technical career path gets lost in lots of organisations because the company doesn't honour the contributions and career path of the technical people who don't want to move into management," says Dan Burgin, CTO of Westminster, Colorado-based Finali, an MSP (managed service provider) for e-CRM.

          In many companies the senior developer is often the highest technical position that doesn't involve overseeing direct reports. This leaves little room for continual same-employer advancement. That's a mistake, says Burgin, a member of the InfoWorld CTO Advisory Council. "People can't stay at the same compensation level forever without feeling bogged down. ... You can't afford to let that talent walk out the door."

          Technologists with highly sought skills will look elsewhere for opportunities, especially if they've already been managers and left that type of position to return to "hands-on" tech work, says Finali's CTO, who has a staff of 18 IT professionals. "As an executive, you become responsible for people's careers. Don't take this lightly."

          With an eye to keeping talent challenged and in-house, Burgin developed an org chart for the three-year-old Finali to define a technical career track. At the pinnacle of that path is the MSP's architecture team.

          The three-person group, one of whom is the director, often serves as Burgin's technical right hand. "It's an elite team. It's the brain trust. They help me to think through how to write applications, how to scale the business," he says. The highest level technical decisions get made in consultation with the team. "Everyone wants to be on the team. They help influence the direction of the company."

          Pair up

          A two-headed brain trust is better than one. At eLabor two heads are joined through the company's mentoring programmes. As a result, CTO Mike Toma has seen improved employee communication and retention because mentors serve as important staffer contacts. "The manager can't be the one touch point. The [programmes] create tighter groups," says the CTO of the Camarillo, California-based developer of automated work force management tools.

          Toma's unofficial "buddy" programme is an extension of eLabor's official mentor programme, which pairs new hires with experienced eLabor personnel to learn the corporate ropes. The buddy programme focuses on the professional and technical goals of his 55-member technology staff. "The manager and employee define what goals they need to accomplish in the review process, and how the mentor can help," says the CTO.

          "Managers use the [buddies] for feedback. They talk to them before a review," Toma says.

          Being named a mentor or a buddy is an honour in the company. Individuals often ask to serve in the buddy programme, but not everyone is allowed to coach a more junior person. Toma, a member of the InfoWorld CTO Advisory Council, looks for particular traits in the senior member of the buddy pair. "We typically use people that are aggressive and excel. They're generally already making high marks," says Toma.

          The guru half of the pair becomes more than a sounding board or tech resource. "The junior person sees that this person is working extra to do extra research to figure out that problem. [Buddies are] setting a good example and [the employee] will emulate that," says eLabor.com's CTO.

          This all comes together in Toma's efforts to set the expectation bar high. "Few people will do more than what's expected. ... Setting expectations high so that people continually strive to do more or overachieve, you'll have a higher percentage of people who are trying to reach those goals."

          Toma sees ideal IT talent encompassing many attributes. "Talent is a combination of technical skills and more -- ethics and personality that make up the soft-skilled side. Together those two things are what stand out," he says.

          Build up

          For Steve Davis, getting the best out of his 21 technologists is all about setting examples and thinking about tomorrow. "Always build for a successor; [train] someone to do what you do," says the vice president of technology and product services at Austin, Texas-based Hire.com, a developer of automated recruitment tools. Not only does stoking the management pipeline help the company meet its goals, Davis says, but it also allows staff to take on responsibilities that challenge and develop their skills.

          Grooming a replacement can go against a person's natural tendencies. Davis asks managers to appoint direct reports who can answer any question. "I always tell my staff that a sign of a good supervisor is that when you are gone, others don't know that you are gone. That's a really tough thing to do," Davis says. This successor-in-the-making approach, he says, allows for rapid growth and allows staff to learn more and move up faster.

          To enforce the programme, Hire.com managers are graded in their performance reviews on their success in training the next in command. "It comes from the top down," Davis says. "That's the difference between a manager and a leader. A leader will cultivate talent, define strategic objectives and overall goals."

          Everyone on the IT staff needs to keep an eye on the big picture, Davis believes. "They must understand strategic imperatives," he says.

          Getting the best out of your staff, says Davis, doesn't have to be a chore. "The most fun that I have on the job is as the orchestrator in cultivating the people that I have."

          Cultivating talent checklist

          • Develop a nonmanagement technologist career track.
          • Initiate official mentoring and buddy programmes.
          • Set high expectations for all staffers, not just the stars.
          • Constantly train staffers to take on their managers' duties.
          • Allow staff to train upper-level managers.

          Keep all staffers involved

          While you're coaching your "A-list" players, don't forget the rest of the team, management experts advise.

          "Every organisation everywhere will have a variety of competencies that are being developed," says Deb Clifford, president of Inspired People, a leadership consultancy in Simsbury, Connecticut.

          Staffers who perform adequately but not exceptionally are often disengaged from the corporate or departmental mission. "[Non-star staffers] are not going to be motivated to get the work done if not included in coaching and culture building," she says.

          Poor motivation can sometimes be linked to the fact that "no one showed [these employees] that what [they] cared about is connected to the organisation," Clifford says.

          Clifford is a strong advocate of involving employees -- especially those who are underperforming -- in decision-making and designing processes that affect them. "This gives them ownership through authorship," says the consultant. This approach can develop diamonds-in-the-rough and align their values with strategic corporate imperatives.

          But not everyone can be boosted up. "If a person has been given an opportunity to develop and does not have the aptitude to go where you want to take them, they might be better served elsewhere," Clifford says.

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