What tech managers can do to hold onto their best talent

It’s not an employer’s market anymore, and organizations need to make retention of their tech talent a priority.

When top talent leaves, it reverberates through the organization, and the morale of those remaining usually suffers. The loss of key, high-profile employees signals corporate uncertainty to the rest of the organization. But it’s not just a matter of holding on to the talented stars who are at the top of their professional game. Employees with deep institutional knowledge are vital to maintaining business operations.

While retention is surely preoccupying those in the C-suite, it’s usually a matter that has to be tackled at the departmental and even the team level. It’s been said that people join companies but leave managers, and it’s true.

Managers might wonder what they can do, since they don’t control the purse strings. But in most cases it’s not money, but culture and work/life issues that typically spur employees to seek out new opportunities.

In my work, I have seen what works to stem attrition. Here are some of them:

* Team leaders and department heads who flexibly accommodate people in balancing the demands of work and life suffer fewer desertions. They let their people know that their role doesn’t begin and end with their job descriptions. One of the most successful senior managers I know is proud of the way his team “rocks the work/life balance” while consistently executing projects.

* Managers who treat people as valuable assets and not as commodities are rewarded with more loyalty. Many tech workers worry that their jobs will be outsourced once their managers start referring to them as “resources,” making them more likely to look around for new opportunities. Job seekers frequently cite the uncertain future of their role and department as the primary reason for looking elsewhere. Your commitment to your team, the stability of the organization and your team’s feeling that they have long-term opportunity with the organization all help give employees peace of mind.

* Organizations that systematically help first-time managers grow into their roles have lower turnover. All too often, new managers are left to figure out their new responsibilities for themselves. A formal training course is a step in the right direction, but it’s only part of the solution. Ongoing mentoring can help new managers improve such skills as interviewing new hires, developing teams and giving feedback. When a new manager can take advantage of regular check-ins with a seasoned manager who can help with development issues, the entire team benefits.

* Organizations that are better at holding on to top performers often give such employees the opportunity to stretch their skills and work on beefier projects. The ability to learn a new technology, to have an impact and to be part of a solution really drives technical types. Clearly outlined career tracks matter deeply to educated, top-performing employees.

* Another winning tactic is simply to communicate with your team on a regular basis. Offer feedback and solicit their opinions. Consider their professional and career development, technical training and mentoring. Ask questions and listen. That can help even with an employee who you sense is ready to bolt. Sometimes it can make a big difference if you take the time to find out about an unhappy employee’s concerns and show that you are serious about trying to address them. Touch base one-on-one with everyone on your team from time to time, perhaps over coffee or lunch.

* The best managers also know the importance of giving credit to individuals. They make sure that people outside the department know about their top performers. Nothing demoralizes an employee more than a manager who takes credit for all the hard work his team has put in.

There are times, though, when the top management are the ones who can make a difference. I know of one case where the CEO and COO felt so strongly about retaining a key employee that they met with him and worked to create an expanded role that fit both his current skills and broader career goals. The fact that key executives were willing to step in and make his retention a priority made the difference, and the employee stayed.

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