Heads Up IT Leaders: It's The People Stupid!

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After 20 years in the staffing business, focusing daily on the critical skills areas, there are times when I feel like an old buffalo hunter putting my ear to the ground to determine where the buffalo are going and how many there are. Every recruiter worth his salt spends some time eying the weather and figuring out which way the wind is going to blow. Frankly, we usually have a pretty good fix on coming trends simply because we spend all day listening to what our clients and our candidates are saying. Right now, my ears are picking up a loud and growing rumble of discontent that is growing in severity and echoing through all large enterprises. The managers have known there was a problem for awhile now, and soon it will become a deafening roar that will reverberate all the way to and through the 'C' level ranks. The rumble heard is: "We can't find enough good people, and when we do find one, we can't land them." During the early part of the 21st century, the IT career path looked pretty bleak. As a result of the 9/11 disaster, the Enron's of the world and not to mention the money spent on Y2K remediation, IT people became prime targets in the drive to cut costs—both in headcount and budget lines. It was a tough time. One of the truly sad byproducts of this short era was that companies developed the mentality that IT operated outside of the realms of the rest of the economy. It also drove the perception that IT people were, and always would be, a dime a dozen. There is some truth to the perception that IT became commoditized; but the people didn't.
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So here we are in 2007 and every where I look in the critical skills areas, there is a shortage of talent. There are lots of reasons for this, largely educational and demographic in nature. One of those reasons takes years to fix and the other one is largely beyond anyone's control. The absolute certainty is that regardless of the reasons, the problem is going to worsen and if hasn't yet, will reach critical proportions. So what is an IT director or CIO to do? There are some simple, and fortunately, inexpensive ways to address the problem. Some of these will gladden the hearts of my fellow recruiters; some will not. First it starts with a change of mindset. Human resources has to be more than just a term; elevating the head of HR to a director level may be a start though it is going to take a fundamental thought and action change to fix the problem for the long term. The most valuable assets a corporation has are not the raw materials, nor the largest latest and priciest Solaris servers, or the applications and information running on the server. In all cases, the most important corporate assets are the people. Sure, I know this is old hat; you've read it over and over for years. But it's sad to say, it's very rarely acted upon at the highest level. Nothing unusual about someone being penalized for too much waste or ineffective cost control but when was the last time you heard someone say, "We had to discipline Joe; he just can't acquire and retain the staff needed to get the mission accomplished."?

Now having gotten your "mind right," as Strother Martin might say, wishing isn't going to make it so. Instead let me throw out some concrete suggestions:
  • Grab The Talent When you have an opening, the talented person you met a month is either not going to be available or not interested in working for your company. One of the most successful CEOs I have ever known worked on this premise. Whenever I found a skilled person who fit his company's profile, he wanted to know about it firsthand. In most cases he would say, "I don't need anyone today, but I will sooner or later and this person won't be around." One word of advice on this subject: for best results, realign your relationship with staffing firms. Select them with care and then treat them as partners, not vendors.
  • Hire For Attitude, Train For Skills Carefully determine your absolute "must-haves" (and there are never 10 or 12 of them; usually two or three). Now select the candidate who has those basics and also exhibits the attitude that typically makes a person a success within your enterprise, not the most highly-skilled candidate without respect to how he will affect the chemistry of the group. Sometime a bright kid out of school is a much better long-term investment than the "Pro from Dover." It may be inexpensive to let your vendors train this "green bean" than to go through what a seasoned veteran who changes jobs every couple of years may put you through. I have seen and heard a lot of horror stories and every time I ask a manager, "Why do you let this go on?" the answer is the same: "What choice do we have? He is the only one that can tune this database." Malarkey. Realize that it took you six months or longer to find and hire this problem child, during which time some bright person could have been given a lot of intensive training. A health care organization on the West Coast with whom I work has determined that in order to meet the mandated level of patient care, this is the only model that works. (At Geoweb Staffing we want people who share our common values. If they do, they will quickly acquire the needed skills; it they don't, they never will).
  • Keep What You Have Employee retention must be one of the highest priorities in an organization and it requires involvement from 'C' level on down to line managers. It is this simple: the growing crisis means that over the next 10 years it may become virtually impossible to replace those you lose by attrition; don't aggravate the problem by "running off" talent. This subject has recently gotten a lot of attention and there is a common misconception that it is pricey and requires some program with banners and slogans and then nothing substantive. That's wrong on all counts. There is also the theory that in order to retain people, they have to be given a raise every time they tender a notice. Wrong again. Counter-offers never work for either side and you can't "bid for talent" (assuming your salary structure is reasonable to begin with). People always say they are leaving for more money and it is true that a job change will garner a raise, but something else was going on in the first place or they would not have been assessing the market in the first place. If you address it with a raise, the root cause still exists and will continue to fester.
So what does it take to keep retention at a high level? Merely a few simple things:
  1. Know your people and their talents, their goals, their job. That sounds obvious, however my writing partner, Fred Stawitz, has done a lot of research in this area and pounds home a recurring theme. Managers know that it is cheaper to retain an employee than to replace them. That was the first thing you learned in Management 101. What Fred has discovered is that part of this stems from the fact that when an employee walks, no one had ever maintained an accurate inventory of that employee's skills and duties. Management knew what the job description said; what they didn't know was what the employee could do as well as all the "little things" outside of the job description that the employee took on without thinking about it.
  2. Recognize your people. Some years back I heard a sports broadcaster talking about the fact that in his "Star of the Game" interviews, he would give some token gift from a local retailer as a way of thanking the player for appearing. His point was how funny it was to see some filthy rich athlete wearing all kinds of bling going all over the clubhouse proudly showing off his 30 dollar radio. The lesson is that people want recognition. Recently while interviewing a candidate for a management position, she asked the question, "What kind of budget do they have for employee recognition?" Instantly I knew I had a winner. Whether it is an occasional lunch on the boss, a gift certificate, or just a gold star or paper badge that says "Hero" or All- Star" on it, employees respond to recognition. It has no impact at all on the departmental budget to take a few moments to say, "Thanks for your help. You did a good job."
  3. Reward your people. The sad reality that is painfully obvious to most IT pros is that the enterprise regards them as a cost, not a value. In the average law firm, for example, a first-year associate is treated badly but compensated well. It only gets better from there as that associate generates fees and sees the bonuses increase. Meanwhile, the IT people who at least help make that law firm tick are treated as a necessary evil. Hey, they drain resources, without generating revenue, so what can they expect? Plenty when it comes time for them, out of frustration, to speak with a recruiter and see who is out that will actually reward them for their contribution. We see it all over the place. In supporting a commodities trade floor, I was astounded at the cavalier and cruel manor in which traders would flaunt their bonuses while the people who kept their feeds running were paid like peons. What degree of loyalty do you think is generated when they are aware that the trader's bonus exceeds their annual income? Do I think they ought to be paid the same as traders? No, because a trader's income is based both on income generated and on the fact that the risk is such that the trader usually has his neck stuck out a mile. It is going to become painfully obvious, however, that employers need to reach some type of parity if they are to keep support people.
What's Truly Needed The future really is not all that difficult to predict. If you are a small company and you can do everything yourself, don't worry about it. If you are part of a large enterprise, the future will require you to recognize that people are more costly than any other resource with which your company deals. Just as great precision is exercised in purchasing raw material, and great care is employed to maximize the output from those raw materials, the same care must be exercised in identifying and retaining the people who will help you operate the enterprise and keep it running after you are gone. If you can't or won't hone your skills in the human resources arena, your days or going to be filled with frustrations, your nights with worry, and the competition is going to eat you alive. Other recent articles from TechCareers How To Avoid IT Career Burnout Hiring Wave Bodes Well For Job Seekers
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