Many smaller businesses are already working to better align business and IT goals, but not always with staff retention in mind. However, businesses that foster dialogue and close interaction between IT and business staff gain a step in the retention game, particularly with younger IT employees.
"There's now a new breed of IT pro out there," says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology. "I've been involved in IT for almost 20 years now, and when I first got involved you were in IT and math because you weren’t really a people person. Now there are more IT pros that actually like to work with end users." The good news for smaller businesses is that fewer layers of bureaucracy can make it easier to bring IT and business together.
Better IT and business alignment also plays to another desire of most IT staff: They want to be recognized and have an impact, says Hecht. "Give them opportunities to make strategic recommendations versus being just the back-office infrastructure people," he says, "to make recommendations of how technology can be leveraged to solve business problems. If you do that as a midsize company, you create loyalty with IT."
Be The Communicator -- About Everything
Montejano, for example, recommends clear communication to all employees -- not just IT -- about how the company is doing. Cars.com, for example, holds monthly all-employee meetings where the president reviews the status of the business.
For IT employees, in particular, it's important to communicate about career prospects, especially for companies with smaller IT departments -- typical of many smaller businesses outside the tech industry -- because those opportunities won’t always be visible to IT staff.
Driving retention also requires communicating about the business and the brand, according to Ebner. "Make sure that you continue to drive and encourage the brand of the organization -- make people feel they're part of an organization that is world-class and going places," he says. "Everyone wants to be on a winning team."
However, communication is a two-way street. It's important for organizations to listen to their employees and act on their feedback, especially from departing employees. But if you really want to learn what’s driving away IT staff, don’t conduct exit interviews in-house, advises Hecht. "Doing exit interviews in-house is shooting yourself in the foot. No one will tell you the truth," he says. "That's the first thing to outsource."
Not all IT managers have good communication skills. That's when Spencer Lee advises communication training. "You have to be thoughtful about how you communicate, about what you and your company truly stand for," she says.
Just because it's not all about the money doesn't mean salary isn't important. "Make sure your compensation is at market," says Ebner. "You don’t need to overpay, but you don’t want to give people time for pause. If you're dramatically outside of what the market is paying for a skill set, IT employees are much more likely to take a phone call from a head hunter."
Hecht emphasizes that, although compensation is always a factor in why individuals join, stay at, or leave a company, it's never the No. 1 reason. "Midsize companies shouldn't be dismayed by the fact that they can't pay as much [as larger companies], but if they can't deliver the growth and development, if they can't deliver the technology, projects, and opportunities, then they'll never compete," he says.
Heeding these suggestions can help smaller businesses improve IT staff retention. Plus, SMBs may benefit from poor practices at some larger companies in recent years that have left a bad taste in IT staffers' mouths. "No one has forgotten the offshoring of the last few years, and the hacking away at IT programs in 2003-2004. People are rightfully hesitant to go back to very large organizations for fear they could easily be out-placed again," says Hecht. "And large companies in general have still not escaped the damage that was done in the corporate ethics scandals in the early part of the decade." He expects that seasoned, high-caliber IT pros -- the kind smaller businesses need and want -- aren’t eager to move to organizations with those risks or histories. So don’t give them a reason to.
Jennifer Zaino has served in senior and executive editor roles at publications, including InformationWeek, Network Computing, HomePC, and PC Magazine. Currently, she is a freelancer covering business technology issues, including IT management and best-practice frameworks, IT architectures, and virtualization.