Retaining Technical Staff IS Possible

By Bob McGannon

Retention issues cause nightmares for many managers across the country. Questions without easy answers repeat themselves with haunting consistency. How can I keep my key technical team members when people are on the hunt for them on a daily basis? The money seems so abundant when another company seeks one of my trained staff; How can I compete with this? How can I ensure my technical plans can be carried out when I can’t rely on my staff being here from one day to the next?

Many managers feel crippled by the retention issues that plague their organizations. A feeling of hopelessness is fed by an inability to process pay increases to match what key staff members say they are being offered. Probing and tempting offers that come via communications to staff members from outside the company – even from former staff members you believed were dedicated to your company – cause frustration. The emptiness of what is perceived as a total lack of control of a “bad” situation causes a crippling lack of action: The feeling of being unable to do anything manifests itself in a departure from the character that made you a manager in the first place. Instead of “going for it” you “get run over by it”.

Proactive action, and an analysis of the environment you are providing for your employees can reduce the unwanted attrition you have in your organization. You won’t get results from this in a day, but the long-term effects can be substantial. Starting with the basic question, “What makes our environment a compelling place to be and work?” take a look at the following areas of your business for answers to debug your attrition problem.

Growth Opportunities: Does your environment provide the promise of new, larger or compelling assignments for the ambitious technical professional? Many employees who switch companies cite the lack of opportunity in their current position or area as a driving force for their job change. Are you taking your best people and giving them opportunities to engage in new business, drive new technology or be a part of “high profile” initiatives occurring within your company? (If your answer to this is “We have no new initiatives occurring in my company?” – you may want to look at making a change yourself! With change and improvement in customer service being so prevalent today, you may want to examine the long-term viability of your business!)

Some managers may see the employee growth factor as being a risk – you could be giving your employees the opportunity to market themselves outside the company. The counter to this argument is this: If you need to get the work done, and you didn’t expose one of your key employees to the opportunity, you would have to add, buy or contract the work. Taking in a new employee and training him/her is very expensive, probably more expensive than training the employee you already have!

The growth program that will keep your critical employee in your business is one that is designed jointly with the employee. What interests does the employee have? What are their aspirations from a career standpoint and from a technical knowledge standpoint? Determine which individuals in your organization – other than you – can support and promote the employee. Be prepared, this may lead to the instance where key employees leave your department or move elsewhere within your firm. This can be difficult, but this certainly is much less difficult than losing your key employee to another company – especially if that company is a competitor!

The perceptions your employees have of your company as a source of growth is critical to your retention objectives. If you aren’t sure of the perceptions of your employees, ask them! You may also look closely at your organization and procedures and ask yourself these questions: Do you have any formal growth programs for your key personnel? Are they consistently and enthusiastically challenged across your organization? Are you encouraging networking by your employees, both in and out of your company? Do you have a formal mentoring program? Do your strategic personnel consider your mentoring program viable and valuable? When was the last time you received formal input from your employees on the mentoring program?

Management Approach: It has been documented in many sources; the pivotal element that drives individuals to other companies is the relationship with their direct manager. Your valuable employees should see management as an enabler of their ability to “get things done”. They should consistently feel as if they have the support of management – even in instances where management might not agree with them. Management should be approachable – employees should not be hesitant to bring new ideas and approaches forward, nor should they hesitate to disagree with management should they feel “a better way” is possible. None of these imply that management is not the final arbiter, or that employees should dominate your area’s decision making. In fact, decisive leadership for the organization on the part of management with consideration for employee input is the environment in which most employees thrive.

The degree of “information sharing” that takes place between management and the employees of a company is also a critical element. Employees that feel that management “includes them” on what is going on and what the organization goals and directions are, will feel more confident and more trusting of the company.

Employee recognition, both in individual and team forms, will also provide incentives for your key employees to stay. This does not mean that management must “throw around” money all of the time. It means recognizing when and how individual employees contribute to the business, and expressing appreciation for what they contribute in a timely and knowledgeable manner. Technical environments, especially those that are enduring a great deal of change, often will have employees that feel their manager “has no clue” about what they do. In turn, they feel their managers don’t understand what is difficult and/or what obstacles exist to getting their jobs done. Managers need not be technically astute – that is being able to perform the jobs of their department members (this doesn’t make sense) – but they do need to be technically interested, and convey that interest to their employees. Through this technical interest, they will gain respect and an understanding of what the employee does. This attention should be used to convey a clear set of expectations and measurements to ensure the employee perceives what his/her level of success is in the eyes of the management team.

Evaluation questions for your management team include: Does there exist a regular process for recognizing employees on a timely basis? Do your employees consider company recognition to be accurate and meaningful? Can your technical employees approach management or team leaders with new ideas and feel confident they will be given due consideration? Are the ideas that are brought forward and rejected returned to the employee with explanations so the experience becomes a learning and growing one? Do your employees feel that management “listens”? When is the last time you asked your employees these questions to garner their opinions? Do you have a program in place for peers to recognize one another and/or for the “end user” departments to acknowledge technical personnel that go “above and beyond”?

Work Environment: Organizations that encourage employees to maintain their technical vitality, as well as maintaining the technical vitality of the organization itself will gain favor in the eyes of technical employees. Technical team members who are in an environment where departments aren’t engaged in “turf wars”, and can freely and easily work in cross-technology or cross-functional environments find growth opportunities within their companies. Are projects that “violate the status quo” championed in your company? Does the organization embrace change and the challenge it brings? Are executives visible to the “rank and file” technical employees, and is there an expressed interest in their well-being? Is technology embraced in your company as a vital component of success in the marketplace?

These are questions that can make a huge difference in a critical team member staying, or hitting the latest online resume posting service. If you haven’t asked these questions lately or haven’t discussed these elements with your employees, schedule that meeting today. Prepare questions, and create an environment where you are willing to address any concerns that surface. This meeting, and the questions you can pose is “job 1” in the process of retaining your vital technical staff members.

Bob McGannon is a Founder and Principal of MINDAVATION, a motivational speaking, team building and leadership coaching company. MINDAVATION can be reached via the web at WWW.MINDAVATION.COM or by calling 877-544-MIND.


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