5 Ways To Lose Your Best IT Talent

Knowing what drives away your best IT workers offers clues about how to retain them.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

December 9, 2015

5 Min Read
<p align="left">(Image: michaeljung/iStockphoto)</p>

8 Apps, Gadgets To Keep IT Pros Awake On The Job

8 Apps, Gadgets To Keep IT Pros Awake On The Job

8 Apps, Gadgets To Keep IT Pros Awake On The Job (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

The old saw goes: Nobody gets a job between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. That's because hiring managers are busy taking time off. But, it is equally true that your best employees think the most about leaving their jobs when they have time off, during the holiday season and otherwise. 

It's time for supervising IT managers to think long and hard about talent retention. There's no better way to do that then to do the opposite of the things that make your best IT employees quit.

Make no mistake. You want your low-range employees to look elsewhere. But what your low-performing IT employees want is very different from what your high-performing IT employees want.

The following five tactics are almost guaranteed to please your low performers and drive your high performers crazy. Let's take a look at the differences, and how you can stop the IT brain drain.

1. Increase bureaucracy.

Your low performers want things to go slowly. They don't particularly want to invest their time or move particularly quickly.

Your high performers are VERY frustrated with how slow things go in a massive bureaucracy. 

Don't be deluded by the fact that you may work for private industry and therefore you have no massive bureaucracy. Ask anyone who has worked for both government and large corporations (like me) and they'll assure you that large private industry can be equally slow-moving and nitpicky when it comes to process and paperwork. 

In short: Minimize bureaucracy if you want to keep your high performers.

[For more ways to drive your best employees crazy, see 3 Traps New IT Leaders Need to Avoid.]

2. Avoid innovation.

Your low performers don't particularly want to participate in innovation opportunities. In fact, they want to stay well away from innovation. That sounds like work. That sounds like risk.

In stark, stark contrast, your best performers get super frustrated by a lack of innovation opportunities. To them, a lack of innovation opportunities translates into a lack of aspirational work. These are the folks with higher aspirations. If you deny them the opportunity to reach higher and do interesting work that perhaps not a lot of other people can or will do, this will frustrate them to the point of insanity, and they will leave.

The lesson: Provide opportunities for aspirational work if you want to keep your high performers.

3. Focus on routine maintenance.

Related to innovation, your low performers delight in routine IT maintenance. Hey, it's (usually) easy. It's predictable. It doesn't require a lot of thinking. Predictably, they also love manual operations, as opposed to automated operations. Who wants all of this automation, anyway? It's scary.

Automated ops and proactive automated maintenance are not scary to your high performers. But a culture that insists on manual ops IS scary to them. It's the moral equivalent to saying to them, "Hi, please live in the most boring world possible and occupy yourself with tedium." Your highest performers, when faced with too much of this, will want to escape, tout de suite

In sum: Remove cultural and systemic barriers to automation if you want to keep your high performers.

4. Keep dumb funding priorities.

Your low performers have a codependent relationship with short-sighted budget and executive management: The lower the resourcing for IT, the more they can complain and exhibit a learned helplessness.

Contrast this with your highest performers. They can't even believe that after they've just saved finance the equivalent of a full-time employee, nobody's approving a one-time $5,000 expenditure to make it easier to roll out more labor-saving apps or reports. Your highest performers are smart. They totally get that they've saved finance (or the CEO's office, or manufacturing) at least $40K, if not $80K, on a yearly basis. Now someone won't fund a reasonable one-time expense with fewer zeros on it? Does it really have to be this hard?

Your highest performers understand when something is hard because it's a tricky code or configuration. But they don't understand why people don't understand their value and why people won't invest in them when they've proven again and again that investments have payoffs. Again, a strong call to an exit strategy.

The takeaway: Make it easier to get funding for reasonable expenses if you want to keep your high performers.

5. Run the no-fun police.

Generally, low performers love to have fun … as long as it has nothing to do with work. Cat photos, water cooler inanities, fantasy football … low performers love to waste time, and lots of it.

Some IT managers react to this by canceling all fun and by creating blanket policies that restrict employee freedom and choice.

Bzzt! Wrong answer!

Your highest performers love to have fun, too, but they generally have a great time when they're working. There is incredible fun in solving a tough problem, or putting the last piece of a project in place. They also get annoyed when they get the same restrictions on them that other, lower-performing employees get.

Learn from this: Don't cancel all fun because of a few bad apples. Judge people by their quality and quantity of work, and by the way they meet objectives. Avoid universal restrictions.

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About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at Feldman.org.

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