We put so much effort into our communications with customers, yet we spend comparatively little time communicating to "our most important resource."

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

January 14, 2013

5 Min Read

Another talent war is shaping up for 2013, especially for highly skilled people. Demand for tech skills in particular is on the rise, according to 71% of the respondents to a recent InformationWeek survey.

Attracting the best and the brightest is hard enough without shooting ourselves in the foot. And we regularly do that in two ways. We don't bring enough message discipline to our recruiting process, instead letting all manner of employees put out feelers on email and social networks without appropriate guidance or checkpoints. And we continue to let managers say and do stupid things, heading off any chance of retaining the best people.

Most CEOs would freak out if customers were sent a poorly written sales brochure or catalog. "Customer-facing" managers who don't exhibit professionalism don't last long. Yet the equivalent of those transgressions is epidemic at large organizations when it comes to dealing with employees and potential employees.

[ Will GM practice these lessons in Atlanta? Read General Motors Hiring 1,000 IT Pros In Atlanta. ]

Here's a recruiting notice I saw the other day from someone at a company doing some informal recruiting. "I am sending this email to everyone on our email address list, hoping that someone may know somebody who would be interested in these positions." How's that for precision? Describing one of those positions, the individual wrote: "This is a person who will be replacing the person who is in the position right now. He has ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), so [we] need someone to come in and learn the ropes before he dies. He is in a powered wheel chair and has no use of his limbs but has a high-functioning mind and still comes into the office every day."

Needless to say, I forwarded this email no further.

Let's agree that conversations about difficult job situations need to wait until a face-to-face interview. Such a communication also says something about the hiring company: It has no tact or grace.

If we're having trouble recruiting talent because we can't control our messaging, at least we're good at retaining our top people, right? Mmmmm, no. I wish that were the case. I coach and mentor a highly talented and diverse group of up-and-coming IT pros, and the No. 1 issue that drives them away from their current jobs isn't low pay, tough work or a dysfunctional "organization." It's their well-meaning but ineffective bosses.

Here's an actual quote from one of the folks I coach. "My boss expressed 100% satisfaction in my job performance and said the only thing he'd like to see me do is for me to do less -- let the @#% hit the fan a few times and force others to step up and clean up some of their own messes." Really? So let me get this straight: I'm going to achieve high performance by ignoring something, failing to help out and creating a crisis within the organization? How about addressing the bad behavior before it becomes a crisis?

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Most of the high performers I work with seek three things in their work: mastery of their craft, as much autonomy as they need and a purpose. At least two of those attributes get messed up by this "let them fail" advice. The cure for both bad communication to prospective employees and bad communication to current ones is to place as much organizational emphasis on these communications as we do on the communications we send to customers. And we won't do that until we place at least as much value on our employees as we do on our customers. This line of thinking would be heresy at most companies.

Not at HCL Technologies, where CEO Vineet Nayar has instilled an employees first, customers second philosophy. Nayar attributes HCL's financial success to just this concept.

It's an insidious problem, because employees don't call the customer service line and complain when there's an issue. In most of our organizations, there's no way to complain. There's no 360-degree feedback. There's no ombudsman to settle disputes. There's only the "scientific management" chain of command.

"What am I going to do?" I get asked frequently asked. "He's my boss and there's nothing I can do." When that's the case, when a company's most talented and committed employees aren't treated as well as customers, they quietly move on and rarely get replaced by people of an equal caliber.

The solution to that brain drain? I doubt that many organizations are going to adopt HCL's approach wholesale, but they can take small steps. Adopt 360-degree manager evaluations. Put some resources, perhaps outside the organization, into a neutral ombudsman charged with listening to and acting on employee complaints. Executives need to make themselves more available to employees and start to teach (and learn about) what constitutes good and bad hiring and management behavior. If you're feeling really brave, toy with the idea of paying new employees to quit. The practice, pioneered at Zappos, is meant to weed out cultural misfits before they become entrenched.

We need to do something or risk losing our current and future talent to the HCLs of the world.

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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