Effective (and Simple) Ways to Keep Top Talent

By Marc J. Schiller  |  Posted 08-31-2016 Print Email

Retaining top talent can be a real problem for IT leaders, but there are effective (and simple) ways to keep your best workers.

While employees in other industries may hold onto recession-era concerns about leaving their job and not finding another, IT professionals have little fear of unemployment.

In the greater Atlanta area, where we have an office, the IT unemployment rate is less than 2%. As Lee Congdon, the CIO of Red Hat, explains, “There aren’t as many qualified candidates as there used to be, and qualified candidates have multiple offers by the time they get to the altar.”

IT’s retention problem is bad, and it’s getting worse.

To succeed as an IT manager, you need to solve it.

Here’s a solution one of our consultants observed while working with some of IT’s most involved leaders.

A Good Manager Is Hard to Leave

I first saw this solution practiced by a C-level IT leader I had the pleasure of working with. He was one of the most effective managers, and retainers of talent I’ve seen.

But he didn’t win his people over with expensive benefits programs.

And he didn’t retain his people by implementing cutting-edge HR practices.

Instead, he cultivated close presence-based relationships with his people, rooted in regular, informal face-to-face meetings. With me, specifically, we shared lunch together every two weeks, which strengthened our relationship and my commitment to his goals.

That’s it.

And it worked.

I stayed much longer than I intended in this company and found it very hard to eventually leave, largely because of my relationship with him.

I struggled with stepping away, simply because I knew my manager, and he knew me.

A Common Thread—Backed by Research

All of the most effective retainers of IT talent I’ve observed have followed a similar practice.

They have all cultivated presence-based relationships with their people—and their people have all cited this as one of their main reasons for sticking around.

The research on retention tells the same story:

*According to the report Turnover: The Real Bottom Line , the key to curbing exits is for managers to gain insight into employees' attitudes by understanding their personality traits and core beliefs.

*Another report, The Human Era @ Work (produced by Harvard Business Review and The Energy Project), reached a similar conclusion, finding that making your people feel cared for is the most significant action you can take to impact their sense of professional trust and safety.

*In hard numbers, this same report found if you are a supportive supervisor, your people will be 1.3 times more likely to stay with you. In addition, they will be 67% more engaged while working for you, compared to working with an unsupportive supervisor.

*When you develop presence-based relationships with your people, they’re more likely to stick around longer and perform more engaged work. It’s that simple.

What isn’t always so simple is how to initiate presence-based relationships with your people in the first place.

An Open Door Is Not Enough

This is a real sticking point for many IT managers.

Even this IT leader whom I shared a regular lunch with—who was so effective at cultivating presence-based relationships—experienced difficulty initiating them. He often told me, “I leave my door open—I don’t know why more people don’t come into my office to bring an idea, or a solution, or even just to say hi.”

He failed to see the kernel of this problem: Yes, he left his door open, but few of his people saw this open door as an invitation.

There were two big reasons for this:

  1. The Intimidation Factor:
    He was a C-level IT leader. People were too intimidated by his title and position within the company to just walk into his office.
  2. The Soft Skills Factor:
    He was a C-level executive. He worked his soft skills constantly. But most of the people under him sat behind a computer typing away all day. They weren’t sure how to greet the person sitting in the cubicle next to them, let alone swing by a senior executive’s office to introduce themselves out of the blue.

The net of it?

Only a few of his people ever walked through his open door and introduced themselves.

Are You Repeating His Mistake?

Now, this IT leader isn’t the first person to make this mistake, and he won’t be the last.

Many IT managers—especially senior IT managers—forget that an open door is not enough. In fact, if you are an IT manager, you probably assume that if your people want to develop a presence-based relationship with you, they will come over and say hi.

But it just doesn’t work that way.

It doesn’t matter what level of the management structure you are at—if you manage people, they will feel intimidated by you, to one degree or another, just because of your title.

And even if you leave the door open and tell people to come in, you still can’t assume your people have the soft skills and confidence to take you up on your offer.

If you want to enjoy the retention and engagement benefits of cultivating presence-based relationships with your people, you have to be the one to initiate these relationships.

Marc J. Schiller has spent more than two decades teaching IT strategy and leadership to the world’s top companies around the globe. Through online courses, speaking engagements and corporate consulting, his company educates IT pros at all levels how to be more effective, influential and successful in their IT careers. Get access to free videos and a free excerpt from his book, The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders, at www.marcjschiller.com/resources.


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