When former CIO Linda Pittenger stands up in front of an audience and talks about IT issues, she likes to give people good advice—along with a punch line.

During a lecture this week, Pittenger combined wit and wisdom to help instruct IT managers and CIOs about ways to retain valuable IT workers.

“You want to know who’s leaving [your company]? It’s the 20-year-old that doesn’t care, that lives in an apartment with five people, and shares one bed—but they drive a BMW,” said Pittenger.

Pittenger is now the president and CEO of people3 at Gartner Group, Inc. She spoke about effective employee retention techniques during Gartner’s Spring Symposium ITxpo in San Diego.

Bye-bye to bigger salaries
Pittenger said she once advised a client to provide a healthy pay raise for selected staff members. The CIO didn’t take her advice and instead gave the entire staff a 10 percent pay hike. Several months later, the CIO confessed that he didn’t spend his budget wisely.

“He called me and said, ‘Linda, they’re still leaving. But, now they’re leaving in better cars.’”

During the lecture, Pittenger explained how reducing turnover among IT workers doesn’t always mean spending more money on salaries. Gartner research has found that often workers are leaving their jobs because companies fail to provide a career path strategy.

Such a strategy can include a variety of opportunities for the employee, including:

  • Training
  • Promotions
  • Ability to move to different projects

More than half of all companies don’t have a career path strategy, according to Gartner research. Increasingly, IT workers are asking about the career ladder offered by a prospective employer when they interview for jobs.

A case study
Pittenger described a New York bank that was having retention problems even though it was already paying its IT workers more than the industry standard. The bank had developed a career path strategy, but that wasn’t helping reduce turnover either.

In focus groups, Pittenger discovered that the corporate culture didn’t allow employees to take advantage of the career ladder plan. If staffers asked to be moved to another department or assignment, their supervisors viewed them as disloyal. Pittenger came up with a quick way to overcome this obstacle.

“You don’t need an expensive assignment with me; you just need to say to your very large-bonused executives, ‘15% of the people have to move or you don’t get a bonus,’” said Pittenger. She said this reduced turnover for the bank.

Putting it to work
Gartner estimates that by 2004, the average IT worker will remain on a job only 36 months. CIOs are even more mobile, remaining with a company an average of 18 months.

Pittenger said an effective career path strategy can benefit not only the employee but also the organization. Businesses need to emphasize retention for job categories that are the most vital to the organization’s needs.

“If your company had a career path, your technical gurus could make as much money or more than your manager. If you were doing things right,” she said.

Pittenger suggested two additional techniques to include in a career path strategy:

  • You need to do more than offer a training program; you must advertise it, so that workers are aware of the opportunity and are reminded that they are receiving this as a benefit.
  • You should provide a “value proposition,” a reason to be inspired about a job. Make sure this honestly reflects and promotes what’s good about your company. Develop different value propositions for employees in different stages of their careers—new hires, mid-career, and near-retirement employees.