by Bob Kantor

3 Ways You Can Be the Manager No One Wants to Leave

Jun 20, 20128 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

The most common reason employees voluntarily leave their jobs is not the company or the work--it's the boss. The most decisive factor in employee retention is the quality of the employee-manager relationship. Here are three simple practices that any IT manager can adopt to make them the type of manager IT professionals will want to work for.

happy employees

The idea that employees who quit their jobs are more likely to be running away from their managers than they are to be bailing out on their companies, was first popularized by two researchers from The Gallup Organization in 1999.

Strategic Guide to IT Talent Management

That was the year that Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman published a book titled, “First, Break All the Rules — What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.” The book was based on in-depth interviews of over 80,000 managers in over 400 companies. In analyzing their extensive database of results, Buckingham and Coffman discovered that the conventional wisdom about what was most important for employee retention was wrong. It was not compensation, benefits or the company work environment.

It turned out that the most decisive factor in employee retention was the quality of the employees’ relationship with the person for whom they worked; their manager. The authors summarized this key finding in the first chapter with the often-quoted phrase, “People leave managers, not companies.”

While the book goes into extensive detail on 12 questions that emerged as potent measures and predictors of employee retention and productivity, we have found several simple practices that any IT manager can adopt that will make them the type of manager that most IT professionals will want to work for. These have evolved from our leadership development work with hundreds of IT managers, from first time team leaders to top level directors.

First: Show Up as a Leader

Sounds too obvious to even mention, right? Yet almost 20 percent of our IT leadership coaching clients struggle with this first practice. Granted, this occurs much more often with relatively new managers. However, we also encounter it with seasoned middle managers.

Newer managers frequently have difficulty making the transition from individual contributor to leaders. They understand that they are now responsible for their team’s delivery of results, and that they now need to manage the team. Where they sometimes miss the boat is that they do not distinguish managing the work of the team from managing the team of people. As a result, they tend to focus on task management and don’t invest enough time or attention on engaging with their staff on the other practices below.

Sometimes this is because they spend their time micromanaging team members’ work. Other times it’s because they are still too hands-on and swamped with their own tasks as individual contributors, in addition to the work of leading the team.

In some cases, if a manager has a really small team that can barely manage support and ongoing operations, and they don’t yet have the skills to aggressively address demand management it reflects on the resources available to do the work. (Note that this is not a resource management challenge, as it is often labeled. It is more accurately identified and resolved as a demand management challenge.)

Finally, newer managers frequently see their role as managing downward into their team via their positional power. They don’t yet understand the need to use their power to influence/manage across and upward in their organizations. Sometimes this is a result of inadequate education and training for their leadership roles, but it can also reflect a cultural orientation toward those in positions of higher power.

Team members are usually very attuned to how well their boss manages upwards, and decide fairly quickly if they are really leaders or just messengers for their managers. If they don’t see their boss as empowered to make meaningful decisions, they may see themselves as working for a weak manager.

Second: Delegate to Develop Staff

A large percentage of IT managers at all levels delegate far less than they can and should. The first most common reason is that they do not use delegation as a staff development tool. That is, rather than delegate stretch assignments and use their time to mentor staff through the assignment, they do the work themselves and wait to delegate when the staff member is fully able to perform the assignment with little or no supervision.

The second most common reason that managers under-delegate is they hold a belief that the delegating of more challenging work may be seen by their staff as a shirking of their own responsibilities. The reality is that managers who aggressively delegate work are at first surprised by how pleased their team members are to have the new responsibilities and more challenging work. This greatly enhances staff belief that their managers care about their careers and trust them to do good work. Both are important factors in being seen as a good manger to work for.

Managers who see too much risk in delegating such work might be well served to go back to the prior section on Showing Up as a Competent Leader. Your time and energy is much better spent mentoring your employees to succeed at new tasks and to acquire new skills, than in doing such work yourself.

Third: Create Conditions of Accountability

Employees expect to be fairly and consistently held accountable for their performance. When managers behave inconsistently in this domain, and/or allow some team members to under perform at the expense of more successful team members, we further reduce our desirability as managers to work for.

Creating and maintaining conditions of accountability can be readily achieved in three simple steps. First, communicate clear and credible expectations. This is a bit more complicated than just sending a clear message. Too often we believe that we were very clear in our instructions, only to find later that what our staff member heard was different from what we said. The key here is that “communicate” requires interaction, where we test with active listening, that our team members understand our meaning the way we intended.

The “credible” part of this step also requires that interactive definition of communication. We sometimes assign work with either a scope, timeline or level that leaves a team member feeling doubtful about our expectation being credible. Some will raise the issue and explore it with us. Others will walk away from the conversation determined to do their best, but not fully committed to delivering the result. Here too, we need to go the extra mile to ensure agreement on the credibility of the expectation. This reduces risk and enhances our relationship with team members.

The second step in creating and maintaining conditions of accountability is to create compelling consequences. This includes positive consequences as well as negative consequences. It also means creating them throughout the year, and not just at performance and salary review time. Many of us struggle to create compelling consequences that are positive. We also have difficulty coming up with negative consequences other than performance review downgrades or warnings.

But how about the positive impact of interesting project assignments? Attendance at outside events or even internal meetings? The delegation of higher level tasks or representing the team at meetings? Making presentations or doing “show and tells” of our project work? On the negative side, how about simply expressing our disappointment in their performance? Explaining the negative impact of such performance? Declining a request for a perk?

Finally, the third step in creating conditions of accountability is to hold ongoing conversations grounded in facts and observable behavior. We are seen as much more fair and effective as leaders when our feedback and comments reflect real data and evidence. We are seen less so when we introduce interpretation and projection. For example, telling someone they need to improve their attitude or be more aggressive begs interpretation and leaves much room for disagreement.

Contrast that to telling someone that their constant stream of negative comments in meetings inhibits creative problem solving. Or that they need to talk with colleagues when deliverables fall behind, and not just send them emails to remind them that dates must be met.

When we create and maintain conditions of accountability using techniques such as these, we reinforce our effectiveness as leaders and improve the likelihood that our staff appreciates working with us.

There are certainly more practices in which we as leaders can and should engage in order to be among those managers for whom employees want to work. By starting with and making improvements in these first three, we are very likely to improve retention within our team.

Bob Kantor is an IT management coach and consultant, specializing in improving IT leadership effectiveness. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at