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Retaining Technology Talent

McKinsey Quarterly just published “Winning the Battle for Technology Talent.”  Its premise is that technology talent can be hard to find, though executives can ‘learn how to develop, retain and recruit good people.’

What drew my attention was a reference about technology talent that lacks ‘stars’ who can engage business managers.  For those who read my blog regularly, you know the lack of discourse between IT and non-IT managers is cause for concern because it leads to IT projects that do not meet management’s expectations. The financial impact is significant, as is the role failure plays on employee satisfaction and overall attitudes about the IT function.

What McKinsey suggests is that the ‘first imperative…is to develop and retain the team you do have,’  as this is far less risky, less time consuming and more efficient than hiring new managers.  In addition to the usual leadership development tools — among them coaching — they found several other approaches ‘to develop and retain technology talent.’  These are:

Retain High Performers  As I’ve written before, for many technologists the career path is quite traditional.  This can lead to technologists looking outside an organization to restart their careers and work in new domains.  Instead, another approach is to rotate high performers across technology areas and ‘into business and operational functions as well.’  What I like about this suggestion is that it ‘grooms managers who can engage with business leaders as peers.’

Make Training Less Technical  I feel like this sentence was written to support my coaching practice:  “Providing training that helps technology personnel understand the business — in some cases, all the way to the front line — makes technology’s value more tangible and provides invaluable context for interacting with technology managers.”  Through training, the technologists learn all about the company’s markets, clients, operations, and economics.  By doing so, they’ll be in a far better position to understand the technology requirements of the business.

Ensure Senior Exposure  Often technologists are kept hidden, when they should be front and center.  Without them, the business would stop running.  McKinsey suggests that the ‘opportunity to interact directly with the institution’s most senior leaders is an irreplaceable motivator for high-performing technology staff.’  What better way to show the value of IT than to have them participate directly with policy- and strategy-makers and to demonstrate their skills, passions and business understanding.

Facilitate Outside Exposure  The best technologists really like technology — that’s not as obvious as it seems.  Passion extends beyond the institution they work for to the larger outside community.  Supporting participation in industry, standards-setting, and technical groups offers the opportunity to augment their skills, but to also demonstrate what they know and connect with like-minded individuals.  And what is learned at these sessions is brought back to the sponsoring organization, which is a clear benefit to leading shops.

Good technologists are hard to find, so you want to keep those you have active, engaged, cared for, respected, and identified for future growth opportunities.  Technologists and business managers should not be viewed as groups to manage separately or differently.  However, there is one difference that the above approaches address:  technology managers often fall into the ‘specialization rut,’ cornering them in a career where they feel stymied and out of touch with the business.  If we want to keep the best technologists, special programs and attention are needed to retain them and allow them to do the best job possible.