How to Retain IT ProfessionalsBy Dean Lane | Print
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Job satisfaction is not simply about salary. To keep your best people, you need to master these employee management basics.
As a new year begins, the economy and job market continue to fluctuate across nations and industries. Yet, one constant remains: resellers, system integrators, VARs, distributors, and consultants-as well as their customers-face the ongoing challenge of maximizing their existing investments in order to increase profitability and success.
Easier said than done, especially as the dynamics of business and technology become more pronounced every day. Customer solutions are often very complex and sophisticated, requiring specialized expertise, training, and knowledge to create, install, and maintain.
IT professionals, in turn, are tasked with dealing with a dizzying mix of diverse platforms, applications, and business processes-all the while keeping a sharp eye on the bottom line.
Furthermore, managers in reseller and other channel organizations have their own peculiar set of challenges to deal with. Topping the list in 2004 is the issue of eliminating the high costs of recruiting and training new associates by retaining existing skilled IT talent.
To that end, an increasing number of managers are discovering that for channel professionals, job satisfaction is not simply about salary. Instead, it involves a range of issues, among them training, communication, leadership, environment, and motivation. With this "back to basics" approach to business, channel managers are able to meet the professional requirements of the consultants, integrators, resellers, and distributors who fill a critical role in their organization's success.
Few professions today require and value training as highly as IT personnel. And for channel organizations, training is arguably the single most important aspect of employment. That's not surprising, since resellers, distributors, and the like must continually adapt to and master the constantly changing technologies their customers require.
Consequently, one of the most effective retention tools a channel manager can use to retain skilled professionals is a solid training plan-one that is explicit, relevant, and comprehensive. In fact, the best training plans are those that are developed to meet the needs of the specific individual. A manager can simplify this difficult task by identifying what the individual should be able to do as a result of the training and then asking the individual to list the training he or she believes is necessary in order to expand and improve on existing skill sets.
Once this individual training plan is created, managers can review it in context with other organizational training needs and offerings in order to leverage any economies of scale.
While in some IT-related organizations communication is limited to the interplay between a human being and a machine, channel organizations rely on clear, accurate, and constant multi-directional communication among partners, associates, and customers. In this area, managers have a unique opportunity to foster better communication throughout their organizations and in customer relationships by demonstrating effective communication practices within their own teams.
Following are examples of common yet frequently overlooked vehicles through which managers can enrich communication with their channel organization:
- Formally recognize an employee's anniversary date with the company through a one-page letter, with the first and last paragraphs a standardized discussion of the company's present and future and the middle paragraph a personalized address recognizing the employee's service and specific contributions.
- Send a simple birthday email at the beginning of the day.
- Hold regularly scheduled staff meetings.
- Hold 10-minute standup meetings as needed to provide quick updates, outline tomorrow's plan, and publicly acknowledge and praise certain employees.
- Hold periodic "skip level" meetings to enable small groups of employees to communicate directly with their manager's manager. These meetings can be very effective in resolving issues before they escalate.
- Practice the "management by walking around" method-that is, make the rounds every day to make contact with employees (although not every employee must be seen each day).
IT professionals in channel organizations are generally skilled, talented, educated, motivated, and responsible individuals. Needless to say, they do not require leaders who manage their every step. They do, however, benefit from management that can help them to understand the company's goals and their own roles in helping the organization achieve those objectives.
Channel professionals are problem-solvers who generally thrive under pressure and deadline. For them, no pace is too fast. Yet, as with nearly all businesses today, there will be times when work slows. To ensure that challenge-oriented channel professionals remain engaged during these periods, channel managers must plan ahead and have additional important work to assign.
Documentation, for example, is an important yet often procrastinated task required for virtually every customer project. If managers continually stress the importance of documentation, then when other work slows and documentation is put on the front burner, channel professionals are more eager to tackle it because they understand its role in their customer's overall solution.
Of course, organization is also a key responsibility of a channel leader. Because speed and complexity characterize most reseller, distributor, and integrator organizations, it is critical not only that the right projects are assigned to the right individuals but also that managers are willing and available to participate as team members at any time in order to help the organization achieve its goals. To that end, assigning titles to identify the responsibilities of various team members can be very effective in maintaining an organized and efficient group.
The structure of an organization-or, the work environment-has a significant effect on the people involved. Interpersonal dynamics is just one factor in that environment. Managerial style is another. In most channel organizations, managerial style is not static; instead, it changes according to current circumstances and projects. In all cases, however, management of the channel workforce is most effective when the management mode becomes and stays aligned with the situation being addressed.
Following are the five most common managerial styles:
1. Absentee Manager. This manager's primary aim is to stay out of trouble and simply appear to have a busy and productive team. Little consideration is made for matching skill sets with projects. The result? The team is unable to function and, in turn, has great difficulty in addressing customer needs.
2. Cruise Ship Director. This manager values people more than the accomplishment of a task, creating a friendly and comfortable work environment. Because employees feel valued, they are typically loyal and responsive to work assignments. In this environment, it is important to establish goals and ensure that employees understand how their efforts contribute to their own and their team's progress.
3. Authoritarian Manager. This manager values the accomplishment of tasks more than people, and the underlying suggestion in this environment is that employees are truly subordinate and inferior to the manager. The result? High turnover and its associated costs in dollars, morale, productivity, and customer service.
4. Balanced Management. This manager values people and the accomplishment of tasks and continually works to maintain a balance between the two. When a conflict between task and people arises-perhaps during a highly active and stressful customer project-this manager shifts the balance to fit the situation, thereby helping ensure that the needed work is done while empathizing with employees and encouraging them to persevere.
5. High-Performance Team Management. This manager is unique in that he or she operates under the belief that the organization's needs and the employees' needs can be met by involving people in establishing their work strategies and conditions. The goal? High productivity and high morale-and high employee retention.
In general, human beings are self-motivated when they enjoy what they are doing. For channel managers, helping IT professionals stay motivated can be accomplished by uncovering what they enjoy or value.
For example, some individuals are driven when they understand the long-range reasons for their role in accomplishing an organizational objective. For others, face-to-face acknowledge of their contribution is valuable. Some professionals are motivated by competition, so issuing a challenge spurs their performance. For others, the desire to maintain a professional standard is an effective motivator.
By addressing motivation as well as training, communication, leadership, and environment, managers can create and retain the highly skilled IT professionals who provide the solid foundation of every reseller, integrator, distributor, and consulting organization in today's highly challenging channel.
Dean Lane is senior director of Information Technology at Symantec Corp. A former CIO, he recently co-wrote CIO Wisdom which includes best practices from Silicon Valley's leading IT experts.