Loss prevention

Most IT executives weigh the costs and benefits of nearly every decision they make. However, many of these same leaders also make a common and costly mistake. While managers commit significant hours and resources to hiring new IT employees, they spend far less time considering how to retain the pros they already have. Every time an IT worker leaves, the organization pays a very high price.

How can you keep these valuable professionals? The following five tips from the trenches offer a starting point.

Help them keep their skills up-to-date

The IT world changes every six months. For IT professionals, that means potentially being out of a job every six months unless they keep up with the newest technology developments. But how is that going to happen when they already work 15- and 20-hour days in addition to spending their own dime and time reading trade publications, going to Webinars and taking night classes? It's not, unless you help them.

Making ongoing training a part of every knowledge-hungry IT employee's professional experience will result in a group of workers who want to stay because their employer is as committed to their future as they are. Because training can be expensive and time-consuming, it is imperative that the manager and employee together determine the appropriate training path. Start by establishing what job-related functions the employee should be able to do once the training is complete. Then evaluate that individual's training plan in conjunction with the training needs of his associates to leverage any economies of scale. If several employees require functional training on a certain software program, then an onsite course likely would be more cost-effective than individual off-site, multi-day training.

Communicate with the troops

It sounds so simple, but it takes real, proactive effort. Communication isn't just relaying a message; it's also following through to make sure the message is received, understood and acted on.

Let's say that all the requirements for a new software application are gathered and put in a document. The assumption is that everyone is onboard, has signed off and is ready to go. A few months later, the new program goes live -- but some groups are surprised by the actual end product when the modifications they requested offline are not included. The project leader, in turn, asks if those requests were added to the document and approved by the team. As it turns out, they weren't; they were made verbally, but nobody followed through to close the communications loop -- that is, to make sure that the appropriate people had received those requests or that the modifications were added to the document and were indeed being acted on.

Lead so that others will follow

The measure of leadership is whether people are following. In some cases, this is actually quantifiable. Let's say a leader is charged with getting all 600 people in a room to follow him out the door in a 5-minute period. Five minutes pass, and 200 people follow, but 400 stay behind. The leader, then, is just 33 percent effective in that situation.

Leadership also requires respect -- from the leader for the employees and vice versa. Too often managers believe that being a feared authoritarian is the same thing as being a leader. After all, occasional bulldozing appears to get results. However, in an environment where tyranny reigns, respect is absent and, in turn, followers grow scarce.

Pay attention to your environment

If you don't think about the kind of workplace you're creating for your employees, then you leave that environment to chance. There is no perfect model that applies to every workplace all the time. Instead, it is situational, where the environment evolves based on the projects and work being done, the employees within the organization, and the leadership and management style of the group's leaders. A manager who typically maintains a solid balance between concern for employees and task completion might need to tip the scales temporarily to emphasize productivity during a tense upgrade period -- while still being sensitive to morale.

To make sure they are creating an effective environment, managers must identify the best way to structure their organization to accomplish tasks and then evaluate the effects of that structure on the staff. Are people encouraged to work as teams or as individual contributors? Is the bar set so high that it is impossible to reach, leaving people feeling inadequate and unfulfilled? Or are successes acknowledged, celebrated and rewarded, refueling the group to tackle the next project?

Figure out what motivates each individual

Employees are consistently self-motivated when they enjoy what they're doing. The challenge is figuring out what drives each individual and then linking that with the work at hand. Some individuals are galvanized by competition, others might be service- or team-oriented, while for others, reputation and professionalism are the top priorities. When motivation is uncovered, performance increases.

For example, a competitive organization likely would rise to the challenge to complete a project in three months if it was pointed out that a sister company created quite a stir by accomplishing the same tasks in a record four. A rewards-driven group, however, might respond better if charged to complete the project by a certain date to earn privileges or recognition.

Employee retention will continue to be one of the most important issues businesses face. By providing employees opportunities to enhance their skills in an effective and motivating work environment, IT managers can develop and retain the highly skilled performers that will help ensure their organization's success and profitability today and into the future.

- Lane is senior director of IT at Symantec Corp. A former CIO, he recently co-wrote CIO Wisdom, which includes best practices from leading IT experts. He can be reached at dean_lane@symantec.com.

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