In a recent CIO focus group, the moderator asked the attendees to list their top three work-related problems. Almost all of the CIOs cited economic issues (e.g., funding for projects, dealing with layoffs, etc.). But, to my surprise, one of the consistent themes that concerned CIOs was the morale of their technical employees. Given the current state of the economy, you would think that those who were gainfully employed would be happy just to be working. But not so, said the CIOs: It seemed to them that most technical employees were still in mourning over their missed opportunity to “strike it rich,” now that the Internet IPO phase had passed.
In fact, many of the newer hires were people who had returned from their “run for the gold” and had stories about late-night jam sessions, celebrations for milestones, close working relationships with founders and venture capitalists, and a nostalgic sense of being part of the revolution. Although it’s great to have these skill sets in the company, many CIOs bemoaned the influence these employees held over longer-term and more dependable employees. After a long and fruitful discussion regarding the best way to deal with morale in their companies, the CIOs embraced a three-prong strategy of accentuating the positive points of the company, the team, and each individual.
Building a strong organization and maintaining the morale of the “troops” is much more important in lean times than in times of plenty. In this article, I’ll discuss some techniques that CIOs can use to boost technical employee morale.
“Sell” the company
One of the most important aspects of the discussion was the importance of “reselling” technical employees on the merits of their company. Most of the CIOs in the focus group worked for companies whose core business wasn’t technical, although the companies did rely on technical services to deliver their goods and services efficiently. The CIOs determined that they do not sufficiently promote to their employees the positive points of their companies and the importance of technical employees’ key contributions.
Reinforcing the company’s positive attributes is not only a politically savvy thing to do but also a great way to build employee morale. Most of these companies have good (or great) benefits, cash reserves, a long and loyal customer list, and most importantly, a vision for the future. In order to keep and motivate technical employees, the CIO must make them feel like part of the core business—and ultimately, the success—of the company. Employees want to know that their contributions are highly valued and that they carry a great deal of responsibility for the company’s prosperity—a message that the CIO must deliver.
As much as technicians and developers like to boast about their individual accomplishments, they know that their best work typically results from the efforts of a team. Team building, then, should be about creating opportunities for people across the organization to work together and get an appreciation for what others can accomplish.
One example of an effective—and inexpensive—way for CIOs to build cross-divisional teams is to organize a book club. Make sure to select a book whose topic will be of interest to the whole organization so that employees from several different divisions will be motivated to participate. Then, put together a reading schedule and set up discussion sessions over lunch in a conference room so no one is pulled away from important work. This sort of team-building exercise fosters relationships between employees from different departments and also gives you a chance, as the group’s leader, to further “sell” the positive points about the company.
To build smaller teams, you might consider asking vendors to provide training and discussion opportunities for team members. These types of learning experiences can serve as a way to offer your employees a chance to strengthen their skill set, which can make them feel more valuable and more secure as a part of your team. Vendors will usually be glad to participate, as it gives them the opportunity to build credibility with the group of people who would use their product or service, but do make sure that the vendor understands that if they try to sell to this group, they will likely never be asked back.
Praise for the individual
Every employee—and especially those in a “creative” role—needs reinforcement about their personal worth. I can tell you from personal experience that the employees who work the hardest and are the most loyal are the ones who feel that their contributions are valued. The interesting dynamic here for the CIO is that it’s not necessarily so important that you know what the person does on a daily basis, but it is important that you know or try to learn something about them personally. Most technical employees know that their managers understand their work priorities—but what they really want is for management to know who they are on a more personal level.
Making a point to spend time getting to know your employees personally can both boost their self-esteem and help you in future efforts to build teams and “sell” the company. First, make a list of all the employees that report to you directly or indirectly. Schedule five to 10 minutes on your calendar with each of them every month. And don’t ask them about work. Ask them about their families, their hobbies, or their interests—and take time to write this information down. Over time, you will build the trust that allows your employees to come to you with ideas, concerns, or issues that can help you maintain the morale of your organization.