Retain talent? Get real!


SINGAPORE – I could not sleep on the red-eye to China to deal with the resignation of one key IT staff there a week earlier. It caught me by surprise although it happened in a country with a high attrition rate, second only after India which is around 14.5 per cent (Mercer, 2005). What could I have done better or is this something beyond my control?

I am responsible for IT operations in the “happening region” of Asia which has shown exponential growth rate in the last few years.

It is a double-edged sword situation as the demand for staff is far surpassing the supply, including in IT. Literature reveals that 80 per cent of CEOs put attraction and retention in the top five business issues (Mercer, 2000). It becomes an employee’s market once more where the only way to keep key IT people might be by paying higher, year after year. I have also read that compensation for senior people in India have even surpassed those of American and European counterparts.

Are we back in the “golden era” where IT people can easily switch jobs for greener pastures?

People ‘quit their boss’ Based on an internal climate survey, contrary to popular belief, “poor pay” is not the top reason why people leave. It is “poor relationship with the boss” and “non-conducive work environment”. In other words, people “quit their boss” and “not the company”. Could this be the main reason why this key IT staff is leaving us?

Development Dimensions International (DDI) postulated five different components that can be used to engage people and make them stay, which are leadership, meaningful work, organization, people and development. Allow me to humbly assess myself on these components. I have tried to keep my commitment and to build trust within my team by lending support without removing their responsibilities. We perform periodic IT remuneration market analyses to ensure our total remuneration is competitive. We have tried to foster a meaningful work environment by providing stretch yet achievable assignments in the region and at the global level. I might even sound like a broken record in sharing company and IT vision and values and promoting work-life balance in my team. Mentoring and coaching my team is on the top of my agenda. What did I miss then?

As someone with IT technical background, I have to admit that we often see things either as one or zero, black or white. But I have realized one important component of IT which is “heartware” or people, in addition to hardware and software. Business IT comprises three important components of people, process and technology (in order of importance). No matter how state-of-the-art our hardware and software, and best practices recommended by expensive consultants, we need a talented and motivated IT team to implement and support it.

Early warning signs

I decided to go back to the drawing board and focus on what I defined as humanization of IT. It is a strategy to focus on people to achieve company and IT missions by minimizing work-life conflict. I learnt from previous cases where people left after they got married or had their first child for higher pay or to have more time with the new family. You might get surprise findings from stay interviews which are more valid than exit interviews. I need to be more alert in detecting such early “warning signs”.

The only way to benefit from these humanistic approaches is to do it with sincerity, openness and consistency. This will require a lot of our commitment and time which are quite scarce in today’s pressure for cost control and profit maximization.

On the other hand, it is still an effective strategy to retain key IT talent by creating a good working environment. How many of us decided not to leave because we do not want to lose our colleagues and sometimes, our boss? How many of us are doubtful that a new working environment will not be as conducive although the job offer comes with better perks?

Zero attrition rates are rather impossible in the current market situation, especially in Asia. Attrition does not always mean bad news especially when it involves a low performer. But we still need to track, develop and retain key IT talent in the company in order to have “healthy” turnover. People are unique so we need to use different approaches.

Personal reasons

The other path is to admit that the modern Asian IT organization has a revolving door where people come and go at will. This might be true for entry-level IT staff who use initial years as a stepping stone before settling down. We have to accept it and hope the good people will stay by paying them higher than market rate and giving them challenging assignments. But I personally will not solely use this approach, at least not for a position with a high learning curve and a limited pool in the market.

I found out later that the reasons for this key IT staff’s resignation were personal. They were to gain new experiences in different industries and have a less demanding job in a local role. It was apparently the norm to change jobs every few years in the local IT market. Failing to do so will indicate that the person is not capable (read: marketable). We cannot do much to change this mindset although the market will reach its new equilibrium.

I remember reading the book by Don Jones, Walk Slowly and Carry a Big Idea, that nicely sums up this topic.

What is real? People are real. Whatever ties or figments of ties, or hints or spirits of ties that connect people or life itself — they are real.

Whatever meaning people find in their relationships, work, in their own unique experience of living — that is real.

Everything else is an illusion.

What do you think? Am I too naive or making sense here?

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