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6/6/2012
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How To Handle IT Growing Pains

How can managers keep IT staffers happy even as a company morphs from a startup into a large enterprise? Consider this CEO's advice.

Your IT management style must evolve as your company grows from a startup to a large enterprise. Clate Mask, CEO of InfusionSoft, has watched his tiny sales and marketing software company in Arizona grow to 250 employees, 60 of whom are IT professionals, including Java developers, product designers, and quality assurance staff.

Mask has advice to share on how to keep IT team members happy as this significant change plays out--and not all of his advice boils down to money.

What changes should you anticipate? Here's how IT shops differ by size, and the leadership challenges that arise with growth.

1. Cooks In The Kitchen
Forget about drawn-out meetings. Small IT shop members simply don't have the time or inclination to brainstorm for hours on end. Instead, each and every employee is considered a key decision maker with plenty of decisions made on the go. "In a small group setting, there's not really any policy or decision-making overhead that you'd typically find in larger organizations," said Mask. "It's extremely nimble and you're working with people who want to do, do, do. They don't want to sit around and strategize a lot."

That all changes, however, as a company's IT department expands. "Today, InfusionSoft has 250 employees and there are probably four or five in the group who are major decision makers," said Mask. "The rest are in teams, writing code or conducting research. The percentage of workers who are decision makers naturally goes down as the company grows."

[ Can you tell a promising IT leader from a potential troublemaker? Read 5 Signs Of A Lousy IT Leader. ]

Having more cooks in the kitchen also requires a change in leadership style, according to Mask. While it's important to solicit feedback and input from IT professionals, he said that within a large enterprise "it's a manager, director, or VP who needs to make all the decisions."

2. Hands-On Involvement
Many IT professionals place a high value on having a say in product development--an on-the-job perk more likely to occur at a small company. "When you're very small, everybody is heavily involved in the deliverables and the product," said Mask. "As you get bigger, though, you hire people who specialize in product development and others become less involved in product creation."

Because such a loss of input can impact the morale of engineers and developers, Mask said IT leaders need "to do things to make sure that employees feel that their products are highly valued even if they aren't being touched by the customer. Otherwise, as your company gets bigger, engineers will be harder to inspire and many of them will want to be in smaller groups or startups." Fortunately, employee surveys and group demos can go a long way toward making IT professionals feel a part of the process.

3. Consider Compensation
To be sure, larger companies have the deeper pockets needed to compensate their engineers and developers for a job well done. But Mask said if there's one thing IT professionals at both startups and tech giants share, it's a desire to be recognized for their efforts.

"Far more important than the ability to make more money is the ability to have your voice heard," said Mask. "As a leader, I found that I have to invest time in hearing people and incorporating their feedback into the decision-making process. That kind of recognition is more valuable to an engineer than making $8,000 more per year and helps keep morale high among our IT professionals."

4. Moving On Up
An unhappy IT professional at a startup has little choice other than to find work elsewhere. In a large company, however, an IT leader is free to "repurpose people as the company grows."

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. "The key is to make sure that you're not just moving somebody because they're not doing a good job in their current role," warned Mask. Instead, he said IT professionals most likely to succeed in a new position are those that excelled in their previous role as well.

5. Mind The (Skills) Gap
Startups are famous for employing jacks-of-all-trade--IT professionals who can monitor networks, install security patches, and develop apps all in the same breath. But skills requirements change as a company's workforce expands. "As companies grow, specialization comes into play and that can lead to some uncomfortable turf wars," warned Mask. "It's hard for an IT worker to let go of general skills and allow a specialist to come in and take over."

That's all the more reason for an IT leader to ensure proper knowledge transfer and training in a way that doesn't undercut a generalist's contributions to the company.

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