Seven Strategies for Attracting and Retaining Top IT Talent

By David Reff

Wouldn’t it be great to start the New Year armed with award-winning IT organizations’ best practices for attracting and retaining top talent?

If your answer isn’t a resounding yes, consider this your wake-up call. According to Business 2.0 magazine, for every two baby boomers who retire in the next decade, there will only be one college grad to take their place. “The challenge [for IT managers] is going to be getting candidates in the door and hanging onto them,” says former Northwestern Mutual Life VP of IT Phil Zwieg, given what he calls the “abysmal” enrollment in college IT programs.

The IT departments that effectively support and enable their companies in the next decade will be—pure and simple—the ones that have enough of the best people. Those that fall behind will do so because they underestimated the competitiveness of what many economists predict to be the most intensive war for talent in the history of American business.

Over the next decade, your career will hinge on your ability to attract and retain top-notch IT professionals. Your success in doing so carries an additional bonus: It helps you stand out as a top candidate for IT management opportunities down the road. Below are seven tactics for winning the talent war.

  1.         Go for it!

Winning the war for talent requires pursuing the best and the brightest with relentless determination. “Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking we’re just interviewing people, and they have to sell us [on themselves],” says Bob Prosen, author of the book Kiss Theory Good Bye. In truth, you need to sell prospective candidates—especially the hottest ones—on your organization.

Todd Lunsford, the CIO of Quicken Loans, says his senior executives aren’t shy about personally following up with top prospects. After all, nothing makes an impression on a candidate like getting a personal call from the employer’s top brass. “I’ve had the CEO or chairman contact people if we [IT managers] feel we haven’t done a good enough job of selling them on our culture,” he says. The devotion of Quicken Loans’ senior executives to pursuing top talent is one reason why the Livonia, Mich.-based company’s offer acceptance rates are so high, at 80 percent.

2.         Offer challenging work that matters

Sonja Nelson, who built world-class software development teams for BMC and Neon Enterprise Software, knows what it takes to court the industry’s best. After all, she’s hired more than a hundred of them in her multidecade career. “If they’re really talented, there’s no point in giving them ordinary, day-to-day work,” she notes. “They want to be the architects, not the bricklayers.” So don’t wait until your best people have left to find out they were bored. Challenge them with important initiatives. Then watch them rise to the occasion.

At Northwestern Mutual, former VP of IT Zwieg created a resource center focused on employee development and feedback. One of its primary purposes was to match the department’s needs with the projects his IT employees most enjoyed working on. This model helped Zwieg’s IT group land in the top 20 on Computerworld’s Best Places to Work in IT list, and resulted in a flurry of qualified employee referrals.

            Providing a challenging work environment has an additional benefit: When you do lose good workers, it increases the chances of them returning, especially if their new job doesn’t measure up to their old one. That was the case for at least one IT worker who left PCL Construction only to return six months later, according to Brian Ranger, the Canada-based company’s general manager of systems and technology. Ranger says the employee sought his previous job because he wasn’t growing as much in the world of consulting as he was at PCL.

  3.         Provide an abundance of opportunities

One of the surest ways of attracting and retaining top talent is offering workers ample avenues for furthering their careers. Author Prosen underscores the importance of talking to candidates not only about the job they’re considering, but also about where it might lead. Discussing career opportunities with candidates up front shows them there’s a future with your organization.

Similarly, if your company is known for promoting from within, be sure to strut your track record to candidates you’re courting. Quicken Loans’ Lunsford is a firm believer in giving priority to internal candidates. “I would say 92 out of 100 times we’re going to find the right person [already] in our company and [then] backfill them,” he says. Promoting from within also helps Lunsford, whose staff has grown from 10 to more than 350 employees in nine years, retain workers. Ensuring your best people get the chance to move up and around limits the likelihood of them moving on.

4.         Help your staff be all they can beThere are plenty of ways to show your staff that their success and satisfaction are important to you, whether through mentoring, extra attention or simply allowing them more latitude in how they execute their job functions.

 “Being a mentor and adviser to your employees is what sets leaders apart from managers,” says Marita Ventura, CTO of payment solutions provider I4 Commerce. Ventura employs a consultative approach with subordinates, preferring to advise them rather than tell them what to do. She feels that’s the best way for her people to learn and develop professionally.

Ventura harnessed this approach with an employee initially recruited for his technical skills. She perceived leadership potential and fanned the spark into a flame. He now directs the company’s core systems development, and is passing along the mentoring torch himself. “His team trusts and respects him,” she says, “and looks to him for that same level of guidance that I once provided to them directly.”

Quicken Loans’ Lunsford makes a point of instilling a sense of empowerment among his tech workers. He wants his IT staff to be able to recognize business processes that could be made more efficient with technology, so he has them spend time observing how business users employ the company’s systems. If, for example, a member of the tech team sees a user going to a website to re-key data and verify information, Lunsford says the team member will determine why that user has to re-key information and begin discussions to come up with a technical solution that will streamline the user’s work. ”We have created countless interfaces internally and externally for this purpose,” says Lunsford. “There is no bureaucracy. A team member doesn’t have to get approval to create a custom solution; they execute.”

5.         Trust and respect your people

For Quicken Loans’ Lunsford, trust is a two-way street between an employee and a manager that begins during the interview process. The candidate needs to trust that the hiring manager is accurately portraying the culture of the company and the job opportunity, and the employer needs to trust that the candidate is accurately representing his skills and experience, according to Lunsford.

Trusting and respecting your employees also means tolerating their mistakes and recognizing that mistakes are part of your staff’s learning process—just as they were part of yours.

Lunsford, who’s worked for Quicken Loans for nine years, says he’s able to make solid, self-assured decisions today because he’s learned from mistakes he’s made in the past. He credits the support he received from colleagues and managers with helping him get through his school of hard knocks, so he offers his workers the same understanding. 

  6.         Applaud a job well done

Employees won’t remain with a company if they don’t feel that their work is appreciated.  Consider devising creative ways to acknowledge and reward outstanding performers as one of the perks of your job.

At Quicken Loans, the IT group is in the process of creating a “Wall of Fame” that will recognize employees who have come up through the ranks on the technology team. The IT staff has also mounted an 8-by-4-foot bulletin board that features the names of employees who have been nominated by one of their colleagues for exemplifying one or more of the company’s corporate philosophies, which include “Simplicity is genius” and “Innovation is rewarded, execution is worshipped.”

Another way to recognize outstanding contributors is to let your team see the impact of its work on customers. For software vet Nelson, the products her teams brought to market served as public showcases for her staff’s talent. Sharing customers’ positive feedback with her teams was a way for her to make them feel good about the work they did.

7.       Create an exciting environment

Your staff works as hard as you do, so whatever you do, don’t  take the proverbial T-Bird away: Make sure everyone’s enjoying the ride.

Fun comes in all shapes and sizes. It can emanate from something as simple as business expansion or new facilities, points out Zwieg, such as when Northwestern Mutual expanded its product lines and invested in a new data center. He says both activities generated excitement among his staff.

If there’s nothing like a new data center on the horizon to galvanize your staff, there are endless opportunities to make everyday life more energizing and enjoyable for them. For example, Quicken Loans’ Lunsford says his company gives its employees “a lot of creative license” when it comes to decorating their work spaces. One particularly creative systems architect, whose nickname is Grandpa, placed fake grass and a sign that reads “Stay off the lawn” in his area along with mock-ups of him yelling at kids in his “yard.” Other employee decorations include a life-sized cutout of Elvis Presley, a talking fish plaque and an inflatable rhinoceros hanging from the ceiling. “Every time I meet with someone who walks in the door for the first time, [they] get this sense, Wow, this a cool place,” says Lunsford. And there’s nothing like that wow factor to woo a sought-after candidate.

Knowing how to build effective, cohesive, low-turnover teams is vital. Your demonstrated ability to hire and retain high performers will set you apart from other job prospects the next time you consider a new opportunity yourself. Adopting these tactics for attracting and keeping the cream of the crop will help you become a better leader and a more sought-after candidate for the top IT jobs.

David Reff is CEO of David Reff & Company, a Dallas-based executive search and attraction firm specializing in CIOs, CTOs and their direct reports. Reff can be reached  at David@davidreff.com or at 972-704-5007.

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