Build a long-term work relationship

Darrell Harrell has yellow blood running through his veins. It’s not something that keeps him bedridden, but it does keep him rooted to his employer. “It’s a combination of a sense of family here, along with constant IT challenges and opportunities, that keeps me,” says Harrell, an IT manager at Caterpillar Inc., which sports a bright yellow company logo. “That’s what we call ‘yellow blood.'”

Like many IT workers who stay at a company for long stretches even their entire careers Harrell says he’s excited about more than just his work. The Peoria, Ill.-based heavy equipment maker provides an atmosphere that fuels career growth and personal satisfaction.

That’s why Harrell has stayed in Caterpillar’s IT department for 15 years. It’s also why the US$20 billion company has a turnover rate of just 2 per cent, earning it a spot in Computerworld (US)‘s top 10 best places for retention.

Harrell got his first drops of yellow blood the week before he started his job. Caterpillar assigned him a mentor, who invited him over to his house for a social occasion, breaking the ice in a casual setting.

Harrell was then assigned to a small group of other newcomers in IT, who together learned the ins and outs of the company and honed their skills. And 15 years later, he still meets with them about once a quarter. “It’s family,” Harrell says.

Show Respect for Workers

Caterpillar and other leading IT employers are able to retain their workers because they offer more than good jobs, says Howard Adamsky, author of Hiring and Retaining Top IT Professionals (McGraw-Hill, 2001). “It’s not so much what you do as a company; it’s what you are as a company,” says Adamsky, founder and president of HR Innovators Inc. in Stow, Mass.

For Ruta Ozers, an IT consultant at International Truck and Engine Corp., the Warrenville, Ill.-based manufacturer exemplifies what’s best in a company through “its respect for people.”

“When someone has a family member who’s sick or they need to stay home for an important reason, management doesn’t make you feel guilty,” Ozers says. “And others pitch in to help get your work done. There’s a real value here around family.”

Creating a great place to work means listening to your staff and understanding what it’s like to be in their shoes at different stages in their career, says Ergin Uskup, CIO at United Stationers Inc. in Des Plaines, Ill. He says he tells his managers to “imagine yourself as a 28-year-old programmer or a 30-year-old network analyst. Know what’s important to them. Know what they value.”

Uskup surveys his staff twice a year to learn precisely what they want, determine what’s right for the company and its employees, and then get it done. That’s helped keep his department’s churn to a mere 4 per cent.

Like Uskup, Jeff Spar, CIO at The Reader’s Digest Association Inc., which has a 5 per cent IT staff turnover, polls his global staff twice a year. Among other things, he learns that IT professionals want to be excited about technology, in addition to wanting a nice place to work.

“They can get bored,” Spar says, which is why there’s a lot of excitement these days at the Pleasantville, N.Y.-based publisher as it moves from its mainframe systems to distributed Oracle-based applications.

Diversify Challenges

Variety on the job is a sentiment almost everyone echoes. “I like the flexibility of being able to work on multiple platforms,” says Bill Robertson, senior business systems analyst at Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. in Las Vegas. He says the project-oriented work at Harrah’s “keeps everything fresh.”

In just the past year and a half, Robertson has applied his financial development skills in diverse technical environments such as Unix client/server, Java-based Web systems and a massive Teradata Corp. database application.

“I’m not put in one little corner,” he says.

Harrell brags that in the 15 years he’s been at Caterpillar, he’s averaged only two years on any particular job. “There’s loads of opportunities to work in different areas with lots of possibilities for your career,” he says.

Spar cautions that it’s important to not throw people into new situations where they can fail and hurt the company. That’s why at Reader’s Digest, he makes sure that people are moved to new roles through job-sharing when they’re ready to take on new challenges.

“This is particularly useful for younger people who are trying to break through to the next career level,” Spar says. They get to work with someone who’s already mastered the tasks, so they’re more likely to learn faster, he says.

“IT people want to work on the edge with high-profile projects. But ultimately, they will want to move on,” Adamsky says. “That doesn’t mean they have to leave the company. So the only thing you can do is keep them working on one more project for one more client.”

Convenient and Casual

The Reader’s Digest Association provides employees who work at its headquarters with services normally found in shopping malls. Workers can drop off clothes for dry cleaning, go shopping or get haircuts without leaving the company campus.

“It’s a comfortable place to work and to manage your personal life,” says CIO Jeff Spar. “It’s important to keep perspective.”

In addition to these conveniences, Spar says he focuses on “exciting people in their job.” Part of this entails making the work itself engaging, but it also means establishing a rapport up and down the IT organization. So Spar has eliminated as much structure as possible and keeps his door open, literally, so everyone feels comfortable enough to walk in and chat.

“We don’t have a bunch of programmers programming and a bunch of managers managing,” he says. “We encourage flexibility and new ideas.”