Finding and retaining good staff is extremely difficult, but it's even more difficult when employees are working under unfair conditions. In this blog, I'll outline five management tenets that I believe are critically important to staffing success.
1. Recognize that people want to do well, so treat them well
In general, your IT staff doesn't come to work every morning with high hopes for achieving mediocrity or failure. People want to do a good job, want to contribute, and want to know that their efforts mean something. Make that your guiding principle in all your dealings with your staff. Frankly, this can be really, really hard sometimes, particularly as you get stressed out and are dealing with something that might seem trivial. It's more than likely that, at some point in your management career, you'll look back and realize that you handled a particular employee action pretty poorly. When this happens, the affected person deserves an explanation and an apology.
This actually goes both ways, too. If you've treated your staff well, it's more than likely that they'll treat you well, and if they treat you unfairly at some point, they'll realize it and make it right. I was in this exact situation a few weeks ago. One of my guys had a particularly bad day, and at the end of the day, a tense situation arose and he took it out on me. Now, the guy is awesome at his job and we generally have a great working relationship, but it obviously still bugged me. However, the next morning, he called me up, we had breakfast, and he apologized.
Of course, this just provides further proof that I have the best IT staff on the planet.
2. Understand that people (usually) fire themselves... do it fast
For clarification, I'm not talking about layoffs here. This topic is focused solely on the act of firing someone.
Even if you've made the best possible effort to recognize that people want to do well and you've infused this idea into all the conversations you have with your people, not everyone will be able to stay on board with the organization. It's up to you (and, of course, your team) to create an environment in which they want to operate. Unfortunately, when it comes to voting people off the island, that duty usually falls to you.
I've written before that it's important that people not be surprised that they're being erased from the org chart — at least when it's for performance or attitude reasons. Obviously, no matter how egregious the performance or attitude problems and no matter how many warnings have been provided, at that moment when you break the news, there will be surprise. However, after the shock subsides and the person is able to look back through the lens of time, I believe that, in hindsight, that surprise factor will lessen.
On this point, too, always use the probationary period as it was intended. Most organizations have a probationary period during which either the employer or the employee can opt out of the arrangement with or without cause. In many cases, this is done for fit reasons (in either direction) or if the employer discovers that the person is missing a key skill, although this should be caught during the interview. It's much easier to take this step during the probationary period than it is later on. I will admit that I have fired someone during the probationary period due to fit, and I will admit, it was probably one of the best decisions I've made. Keeping someone around that can't fit or can't carry his or her weight is a drag on the whole group.
3. Give feedback, ask for feedback, and mean it
I'll go on the record as saying that I truly despise the annual performance review process. I find it close to useless for everyone except HR. People should know where they stand throughout the year, not at just a single point in time. If something is going really well during the year, make sure the person knows it — better yet make sure the whole team knows it. When I get a note from someone on campus praising one of my staff, I usually forward it on to the whole IT staff. If something needs improvement, improve it. Don't wait for performance review time. It's not fair to the organization, and it's not fair to the employee. The longer you let something go, the more opportunity there is for resentment to build among the staff about the situation, so address it sooner.
Also, make sure to be able to accept feedback from the staff from time to time, too. This is incredibly difficult sometimes, but it leads to a much better and much happier staff. If you tell your staff that you're willing to listen to feedback, actually, you know, listen to it. Like I said, it's tough, but I'm far from perfect and even make mistakes every now and then. I'm very fortunate that I have a staff that is more than willing to tell me when they think I've blown it, and, in most cases, they do so in a reasonable, respectful way.
Obviously, there are times that I disagree with their assessment, but we have a positive enough working relationship that, in most cases, they're willing to accept it. Just as often, if not more often, they "win," although that's really too strong a word.
4. Say "please' and "thank you"... the golden rule applies
My kids have gotten pretty good at the whole manners thing, but it astounds me at how often people forget to take these basic steps in the workplace. My staff works their butts off to do the work that has been assigned to them. As is the case with most IT staffs, we get more and more work to do and the staff count isn't exactly skyrocketing. When I ask them to do something, it's generally accompanied by a "please" and, upon completion, a "thank you."
5. Don't be a pushover... be fair, but firm
You might think that the advice in this article makes it look like I'm recommending that you be a pushover. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, when it comes to working with my staff, I simply believe that the people who work so hard to make me (seriously, I'd fail without the people I have working with me) and the organization successful deserve to be treated well, listened to, and respected. That said, I do expect results. After all, this is a job. On that front, over the past few months, my staff and I have overhauled our project prioritization mechanisms in order to ensure that we have sustainable workloads that still meet the needs of the organization. I work with each staff person to assess project plans and determine time frames, and then we commit to those time frames and I expect completion.
That said, life always throws curveballs, so we maintain open lines of communication and, when necessary, adjust project time lines. Recently, we had a project due at the end of the month, but due to "scope creep" that was outside our control on another initiative, the project had to be delayed. Due to the critical nature of the "creeping" initiative, it was an easy decision to postpone the deliverable on the original project, but that decision was made in concert with the staff people on the projects to make sure that everyone understood why we were where we were and what we were going to do to ensure success on both projects. In this way, we dealt fairly with the situation (i.e. didn't punish my person because some other department had a problem) while instituting a new deadline, which, by the way, was met.
It's far easier to keep people you have than it is to hire new ones. Although I do believe in making sure that new blood and new ideas come into the organization, that can happen through other natural attrition, so make sure that you treat your people with fairness and respect. They will be more successful because of it, and you will be more successful because of it.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.