Coaching to Aid IT Careers, Retention

FRAMINGHAM (03/16/2000) - Most companies know that helping information technology employees grow professionally through training and development can be a key retention method. But understanding this process is another matter.

How do busy managers make time to give employees the training, mentoring and career direction they need?

For Allmerica Financial Corp. in Worcester, Mass., the solution was to hire 20 coaches to help manage the company's 850-person IT staff.

"In a traditional management role, managers focus on delivery and people," says Maryellen Doherty, who has been head coach of project management for 16 months at Allmerica. "When a manager focuses on both, delivery is on the forefront, and the development of people's skills and needs become secondary," explains Doherty.

Coaching is hardly a new phenomenon, says Michael Boyd, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. For years, companies have employed coaches to help senior executives develop their management skills.

What's new, however, is that the practice is becoming more personalized at lower levels of the organization, says Boyd. Now companies realize that "all critical employees need the same level of enabling advice and counsel," he says.

Fewer than one in five IT workers say they're actively being coached right now, but 42 percent say they've been coached at some point during their careers, says David Foote, managing partner at Foote Partners LLC, a New Canaan, Conn.-based consultancy that specializes in IT workforce issues. Those figures are based on a Foote Partners survey of 8,500 IT workers at 680 companies.

Allmerica introduced coaches 18 months ago as part of a broader change management initiative. That involved transforming Allmerica from a functional organization to a process-driven company, as described in Mike Hammer's Beyond Reengineering: How the Process-Centered Organization is Changing Our Work and Our Lives (HarperCollins, 1997).

Centers of Excellence

Part of this transformation included centralizing IT and creating Centers of Excellence (COE), or virtual organizations that consist of a talent pool. Led by a head coach, each COE offers a resource for IT workers seeking training, professional development and networking opportunities. "Centers of Excellence help build a professional identity," says Doherty.

IT employees at Allmerica belong to one of four COEs: software engineering, business services, project management or desktop operations and systems management.

Doherty says she has two goals as a coach: to assign skilled project-management staff to the business units and to provide ongoing professional development to the 40 employees she coaches.

Attending key planning meetings, Doherty works with managers as they identify their staffing needs, and she also fills vacancies.

Doherty also meets regularly with her coached staff, who create individual development plans outlining their goals in the organization. Allmerica has also developed a competency model for each job function so employees can benchmark their performances.

Coaches help employees identify skills they need to develop and to learn how they can improve on existing skills. For example, if an employee needs help conducting meetings, the solution could involve a combination of recommending training courses, assigning a mentor or even reassigning the employee to a project where he could develop that skill.

Improving Job Satisfaction

A couple of years ago, software engineer and 13-year Allmerica veteran Dave Lacasse found himself in a familiar IT predicament: He wanted to make the transition from mainframe to client/server applications. By identifying training courses - including C, C++, Oracle and Unix - and assigning a mentor who could help him gain fluency in the C programming language, Lacasse's coach enabled him to make this transition in a nine-month time frame.

Before Allmerica created the COEs and assigned coaches, Lacasse says he would have found such a transition difficult. First, because his former job was hard to fill; second, because of the long hours. The old job also involved a lot of responsibility because the application manages customers' money.

"It wasn't something that could just be dropped," he says.

But Lacasse's coach had developed a network of associates - including managers, employees and other coaches - and she could identify someone with the skill and interest to perform Lacasse's old job.

Working with coaches helps improve job satisfaction in other ways, says Lacasse. By keeping an eye on his workload, Lacasse's coach ensures that project managers provide ongoing challenging assignments - without overcommitting him.

"Now there's continuous steady workflow, as opposed to peaks and valleys," says Lacasse, describing the change in in workload since the company began using coaches.

Measuring Results

The performance of coaches is assessed based on how quickly they can fill open positions, the quality of the staff they hire, turnover and employees' skill levels. Typically, coaches are expected to fill a position within one to two months. To measure quality of hiring, coaches ask managers to fill out surveys assessing new hires about 90 days after they start.

Michael Osborn, manager of information systems and software engineering at Allmerica, says turnover among software engineers has dropped from about 12 percent to about 8 percent since his group started using coaches.

"Oftentimes, we can meet employee needs for career growth so they don't have to go outside the company," explains Doherty.

Would Lacasse still be with Allmerica if he couldn't have made his desired career switch? "I'm not sure," he says.

Doherty's advice to others considering the coaching model is to study your organization's culture and determine your primary objectives. For instance, do you want to reduce turnover? Are there particular skill areas that you want to develop?

"You have to truly believe that focusing on people and development is of business value," says Doherty. "You'll see results in a one- to two-year time frame. It's not a silver bullet."

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