Losing a valuable employee is stressful and, unless you have a great HR department, it can be both time and energy consuming. Finding a replacement is often a lengthy and costly process, and then there is the energy consumed by the onboarding process. If a company’s knowledge-sharing practices are designed poorly, we can expose ourselves to considerable problems – a large chunk of knowledge could be lost irretrievably. The avalanche effect also needs to be considered. Saying adios to one person may be the catalyst for others to leave. Remember, the grass is always greener… As a result, we may end up losing not one, but several people. This is more common than you might think.
Ok, so what’s the one-size-fits-all solution? Unfortunately, there isn’t one. At Black Label we are developing a set of guidelines, a roadmap even, that can help to significantly increase retention if followed. We’ve adhered to these guidelines for a decade and haven’t lost a single employee since 2017. In this article I’ll walk you through what we do and how we do it, and hopefully some of the lessons we’ve learned in growing from a small to a medium-sized IT Services company will help you on your journey as well.
Square Pegs in Round Holes
It all starts with hiring. Obviously, it’s a prerequisite that the candidate be a good fit and that he or she is on the same wavelength as the rest of the team. Is this enough, though? Is a similar attitude or vibe sufficient? It certainly helps, but it doesn’t prevent things from going south in the long run. There is another v-word that is head and shoulders above the rest: values. Considering value alignment in the hiring process is an absolute must. Let’s take a look at an example.
Imagine someone who is risk averse with a strong need for security, routine, and predictability. This person probably doesn’t want to stand out, is comfortable in large and stable structures, and has already found professional fulfillment climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. Now, try picturing this person in a startup environment.
Obviously, a values mismatch is more subtle in most cases and full alignment is not a must, but too much divergence will cause tensions or even lead to conflict and prevent our mismatched member of staff from being satisfied. So, is it possible to squeeze a round peg into a square hole? Yes, in some cases, but it may require a lot of effort and individual treatment. Headaches are guaranteed.
It’s also worth noting that as human beings we often adopt the behavior and ways of thinking of our environment, so some small discrepancies in values can be smoothed out over time, especially with younger team members. However, this tends to be impossible with more fully-formed individuals and can result in some very square pegs in your grounded-down round holes.
So, take recruiting seriously, and try to use your company’s values as your primary indicators in the recruitment process. If it turns out later that you made a hiring mistake, remember the old saying: hire slow, fire fast.
The Outer Limits of One’s Comfort Zone
IT Specialists have careers, not jobs. Continuous development is built into their DNA, it’s air to them. They need to grow just as much as they need to get paid for their work. What happens if their progress is blocked? It’s the same thing as if they were underpaid. Eventually, they leave.
The opposite is also true. An opportunity to grow is an excellent benefit and an incentive to stay despite other hardships. It’s much better when professional growth is structured and a good starting place is to talk to the specialist and establish their expectations, short-term and long-term goals and jointly lay out a plan for growth. Then keep track of its execution.
It’s helpful to remember that in order to grow efficiently IT Specialists need to be given responsibilities that are slightly beyond the limits of their comfort zone and expertise. This is where scheduling and appropriate project and task assignments come into play. This can be quite difficult as a project or task that’s slightly beyond a specialist’s capabilities is not always readily available. This is where additional courses and training can save the day. If properly researched, scoped and planned, their individual development plan and growth can be the key to their long-term success in the organization.
One Team, Shared Goals
Specialists have careers and therefore professional goals that are often highly individual and sometimes these goals can clash with the company goals. Sometimes helping a Specialist achieve their professional goals can be akin to lighting a spark that leads to a wildfire and them ultimately quitting. And you must also be aware that there are also professional arsonists out there called recruiters. Some of them are extremely good with their pitches, offering endless growth opportunities and fast tracks for goal realization and are constantly tempting specialists to change jobs. But don’t worry though, there are fire hoses out there as well.
What if you make their goals much harder to fulfill outside of the company? It’s not easy but possible to connect people’s personal objectives to the company’s by including them in the company’s goal-setting process. Ask for opinions, allow their input, hear them out, and be open for discussion and explaining. When you participate in creating something it becomes yours, right?
Also, it’s very helpful if individual and company goals overlap. Working on software projects that help fight global warming by limiting CO₂ emissions is a good example. It can be a person’s individual goal and part of a company’s business strategy at the same time.
Both mechanisms, participation and alignment, also work for projects but especially for teams and that’s where you can start. Engaging people in working toward a shared goal does more than just making it harder for them to quit. By doing so you’ll evoke a sense of belonging, boost their motivation, and help enable professional fulfillment.
Watercooler Small Talk at Scale
A sense of belonging is very powerful but more than just shared goals are needed for people to feel like they are a part of something bigger. People also need to see that things are moving in the right direction and to feel that they are contributing to whatever progress is being made. More broadly speaking, they need to know what’s going on, which is why communication is so important.
Watercooler small talk may be enough to get everyone on the same page in a small company, but developing a proper communication strategy is a must as the company grows.
This adds up to more than just getting information out there. It needs to be done in a structured way through message-matched channels in a timely manner, often scheduled and synchronous. It’s important that the recipient knows where and sometimes also when to expect a certain kind of message.
But our strategy won’t work if we lace our communications with vague or misleading messages. Explain, follow up, and answer any questions that might come up directly to build trust. Equally important, however, is to be as transparent as possible.
OKRs – Objectives and Key Results – are a great management tool that, among other things, help facilitate transparency and communication. With their roots at Intel, they played a significant role in the success of Google, Adobe, and Amazon but are suitable for companies of all shapes and sizes. Read Measure What Matters by John Doer for more.
In addition to trust building, there is an interesting by-product of transparency which makes it even more relevant – fairness. A sense of injustice can be very dangerous as it hits our ego, overshadows rational thinking and can lead to irrational decisions like resigning on the spur of the moment.
It is also important to encourage people to take the initiative, share the news themselves and be active within an established communication strategy (via appropriate channels for example). It helps keep the creative juices flowing and people engaged.
Clear and transparent communication between company leadership and individual employees is crucial and this is very much a two-way street. A genuine human-to-human connection is important for both managers and employees. Be open, talk to each other to get to know each other better. Understand each other’s goals, passions and motivations and build a relationship based on trust. This relationship is what will enable you to catch the first signs of any problems or issues that may lead to an employee resigning and will help you to react when the time is right.
Scheduled and cyclical one-to-one meetings (aka 121s, 1:1 or one-on-ones) are a good format for such a dialogue. They can serve as a format for discussing all professional matters, set up individual development plans and so on. It is also a great opportunity to share individual feedback.
Going out for lunch or coffee is an excellent alternative to more formal one-to-one meetings. It is where all sorts of topics may be tackled in a more loose and relaxed atmosphere. It also can be used as a supplement to official company-to-employee or top-down communication. Obviously, just like with more formal one-to-one meetings, these meetings also should be held in person.
“Good coaches do not theorize about what should motivate people – instead, on a case-by-case basis they discover what motivates each person. (…) The only effective way to influence people is one on one, in highly individualized, closed-door counseling.”David H. Maister
But it’s not enough to just talk. Actions should be taken based on what you hear and done so quickly. This is how employees know they are having an impact, that they are being listened to and that speaking up makes sense. People, especially those coming from the corporate world, tend to have very low expectations of the feedback they give. Acting quickly will earn you an enormous amount of respect and rapport.
Of course, depending on the size of your organization and your leadership structure, having regular meaningful one-to-one meetings is time-consuming but always well worth the time and resource investment. It’s good to schedule the meetings regularly, take notes each time, define action points and be accountable for them.
The ultimate goal for most employees – especially IT Specialists – is professional fulfillment and your role is to enable that…or someone else will. Without listening to them and taking an individual approach you are opening the door for recruitment sharks to swim in, and for them recruiting an unfulfilled or god forbid frustrated IT Specialist is like shooting fish in a barrel.
Turn and Face the Change
I was born in Poland in the 1980s and, without going off on too much of a tangent, we had a lot of amazing cult films that exposed the absurdities of living under Communism. In one of them, Rejs (The Cruise) there was a famous scene in which a rat-like engineer, Mr Mamoń claims that we like best what we already know. This is called Mamoń’s law by some and there’s something to it.
Change, in general, may mean stepping out of one’s comfort zone and leads to stress and discomfort. This is due in part to the fact that we don’t know what to expect, our brains can’t simulate and predict all possible outcomes. Not knowing why a change is happening may make things even worse. For many people, a sudden change in the workplace can be something that tips the scales and even triggers a job change.
Change is inseparable from growth. New structures, processes, rules, tools or even people need to be introduced in order for a company to evolve. That’s why it is so important to approach any change, large or small, with caution. It is important to carry out changes thoughtfully, without haste, and to communicate everything openly. It’s wise to consult changes with others, involve them in the process and decision making in order to share ownership and get buy-in from more members of the broader team before a change goes into effect.
As something of a side note, it’s important to note that while changes in companies have an immediate effect on employees, the opposite is also true. According to a recent survey in 2021, the main factors for Polish developers leaving a company were:
Right after the war in Ukraine broke out in 2022, however, it shifted to:
Interesting, right? The sense of insecurity increased the importance of salaries and the opportunity of leaving the country. It emphasizes the importance of constant conversation, as changes may happen very quickly and lead to painful consequences if they go unnoticed.
Organizational Change is a big topic and I’m glad I don’t have to tackle it myself. Grzegorz Blachliński, Black Label’s COO, has been helping me steer the ship for the past 8 years. He’s also sharing his knowledge and experience here and his first article takes on this very topic, so don’t miss it.
The Bottom Line
Ok, let’s sum it up:
- It’s easier to act upon one set of values so make sure the team is aligned in that matter by checking a candidate’s values during the recruitment process.
- Professional development is in the DNA of every IT Specialist so make sure you facilitate that process.
- Align your employees goals to make sure they are aligned as a team and that the company goals become shared goals.
- Create a cohesive communication strategy, communicate regularly, and be as transparent as possible.
- You can’t help your employees with their professional fulfillment if you don’t know what it means to them.
- Watch out for sudden changes – this frequently triggers other unintended changes.
Sound like a lot of work? Not as long as you’re able to put yourself in a particular mindset.
Given the post-pandemic trend toward remote work, changing jobs has never been easier and especially for skilled professionals – those are the ones we fear losing the most, right? Sometimes it can be as easy as signing a few documents online and switching from one Slack account to another. Almost as easy as swiping right.
Quite simply, if we treat people literally as just a resource, like some kind of sprocket that fits into our machinery and only needs oiling from time to time, then they will have no motivation to stay. People are people after all and everyone has their own values, goals, needs and fears. If we treat our employees as actual people, building real relationships based on mutual trust and open communication, and give them the space to grow by ratcheting up their professional fulfillment, they will never be tempted to swipe right on one of those recruiters.
Thanks for reading and I encourage you to reach out and connect with me on LinkedIn and share your thoughts about this article.