Proactive action will solve your loyalty problem

Wanted: highly skilled professionals in all areas of IT. Proficiency in client/server systems, Web development, e-commerce, wireless technology, data warehousing and call centers a must. Should have excellent people skills, be willing to travel for extended periods, and be able to creatively navigate complex political situations.

Successful candidates will have three-plus-years experience working with top-tier clients on their most mission-critical projects. Technical MBAs preferred, with industry-specific knowledge. Visit our Web site and tell us why you think you might want to work for us.

How times change. About five years ago a recruitment ad like the one above might have worked (except for the Web site part). Then the recession ended and all those bright young people that our industry said were replaceable took us up on our collective word. We said “Don’t expect lifetime employment — you’re the one responsible for your own career — and change is good for you.”

Some management gurus even wrote books about how the organization would have to become a network of contractors so that it could shed people whenever bad times hit. Well, guess what — the experts were right. Companies have become networks — competing for scarce, temporary talent, when what we need is an abundance of stable employees we can plug into long-term assignments. Turns out that change is indeed very good for people — especially the IT equivalent of sports superstars, also known as free agents. Even now, years after the last recession, the problem of how to build loyalty persists.

It’s not just because people don’t trust employers anymore, but because free agency really does work — at least for the top talent whom peers view as role models. Try telling a 30-year-old making US$200,000 a year that he or she should settle down at one company with a good plan. And who’s going to have more credibility with the recent college graduate — that 30-year-old free agent who probably hangs with the college grad anyway, or your firm’s recruiter who gets paid to talk corporate-speak?

Loyalty is the goal of all marketing, whether it’s aimed at customers or employees. The loyalty challenge with customers is to offer something they can’t easily get elsewhere. Either that, or you have to offer them a better price — which merely commoditizes you. The same goes for employees and recruits. Good pay, good benefits, and even stock options merely get you into the ball game. To play, you must offer something unique. How about the opportunity to work in a functional (as opposed to dysfunctional) organization, where employees can advance their careers in the context of relationships with capable people who genuinely care about the employees’ success?

That’s not easy to pull off, but it’s a solution within reach of almost any integrator. Start now. Send your people into a college to teach. Provide internships and mentoring in your office. Take an activist role in the local community: offer your facilities, your expertise, and your people to attack local problems. Create internal programs where people talk about their latest projects and receive feedback on how a problem was solved — or could have been solved better.

Don’t just build a Web site; sponsor a program to help train college students by building public service Web sites. The inevitable result of these actions (and they are actions) is mutual knowledge and respect. Other employees will do your recruiting for you, which any headhunter knows is the best recruiting method. Of course you offer great pay — and probably great technology, too. How else could you be in business? But even hotshot technologists want something money can’t buy. They want to work with people they admire. And they can’t admire you if they don’t know who you are — or if you don’t do something admirable.

Torrence is president and CEO of Logica Inc., a global solutions integrator in Lexington, Mass.