Talent management with geeks

Talent management is a wonderful term. It evokes connotations of moulding something precious, of growing it and letting it grow, maybe even of adapting traditional ideas of craftsmanship and artistry to today's business environment. The...


Talent management is a wonderful term. It evokes connotations of moulding something precious, of growing it and letting it grow, maybe even of adapting traditional ideas of craftsmanship and artistry to today's business environment.

The assumption is, of course, that “talent management” is not just (ab)used as a nice-sounding synonym for “human resource management” or “employee retention” but rather implies -

  • assuming that the collective skills, knowledge, motivation, and aspirations of the people in an organisation are its most valuable “asset”,
  • seeing the mileage in nurturing this “asset”
  • giving at least as much attention to pushing the boundaries of the “stars” as to improving mediocre performance, and
  • working with an arbitrarily broad range of methods and techniques, including e.g. internal/external coaching, assessment and incentive systems, technical and non-technical training, individual and team programmes, developing career paths, adapting organisational structures, etc.

In short, talent management asks the fundamental question what it takes for key employees to reach their full potential, expand it, and make it available to the organisation in a sustainable way.

A recurring theme in this blog is the need to adapt management ideas and approaches to IT teams and professionals - to their specific mindset, motivation, and values. Unsurprisingly, this argument also applies to talent management.

Let's put ourselves into the shoes of a senior IT specialist in an established organisation - maybe a senior software developer in an insurance company or a network architect in an online retailer. In this role we would be responsible for IT systems without which the organisation cannot function, and we would be aware that the quality of our work and the soundness of our decisions are absolute prerequisites for financial success.

At the same time, as IT specialists we would realise that the importance of our role is only partly appreciated at senior management level. To an extent, that lack of appreciation would not matter because we would be motivated by pride in our work, satisfaction with a particularly elegant solution, and recognition by our peers. However, we would suffer greatly from goals and project plans imposed on us without competent consideration of the technical challenges and trade-offs involved.

We would have long got over the fact that IT salaries and the generosity of bonuses afforded to IT specialists do not reflect how crucial we regard our role as. Still, we would balk at too little pay (relative to peers inside and outside the organisation) not least because it implies an insulting lack of respect and recognition. And respect and recognition are the most universally accepted currencie in the “geek community”.

There is a lot more to say about how IT specialists tick and what drives them but for now this is sufficient background. Let's get back to the goals of talent management, namely, ensuring that -

  • key employees reach their full potential,
  • expand it, and
  • make it available to the organisation in a sustainable way.

Talent managing IT specialists is not something that one particular person does. Rather, it is a team effort that cuts across the organisation and includes pretty much everyone (including IT specialists themselves). Here are a few thoughts and principles that might be helpful:

Don't ask IT specialists to sell their soul. Commitment of the “selling your soul to the organisation”-type is neither achievable nor necessary. In fact, expecting it is counterproductive since IT specialists' built-in sense of structural symmetry and elegance will kick in and ask the reverse question “Will the organisation show boundless and unconditional commitment to me in return? No? Well, sod off then.”

The underlying reason is that IT specialists see themselves as delivering high-quality work because they take pride in it; the fact that it is valuable to the organisation is just a nice side-effect (and leads to a salary being generated). IT specialists may be committed to achieving technical quality, to conquering new tools and technologies, to earning the respect of their peers, possibly even to being loved by users … but not to furthering the well-being of a big organisation.

The only exception is a start-up or buy-out situation where an IT specialist both holds a significant stake and is in control of major elements of company strategy.

Talent manage the team, not just the individual. Imagine the “ideal IT specialist”. Technically omnipotent, socially hyper-competent, 200% reliable, effortlessly creative, and frighteningly productive. It may come as a surprise - but this person does not exist. IT specialists are deficient creatures, especially if they are hired for specific (rare) technical experience. And even the best talent management in the world is not going to turn that disorganised misanthopric guy you hired because he is a genius embedded C compiler developer into the “ideal IT specialist”.

The full potential of any IT specialist is only going to manifest itself in the context of the right team. The team is also a major driving force for people to push their technical boundaries, and the culture in the team determines the relationship of individuals with the organisation.

Therefore, an IT talent management strategy should consider teams, not just individuals. On occasions, a decision to try everything to prevent a particular employee from leaving might even be based on his/her role in balancing a productive team rather than on individual strengths.

Don't overestimate your spending power. Even in cases where there is ample cash available - e.g. at bonus time in a financial organisation - it is worth remembering that IT specialists cannot be bribed into delivering their top performance. A package that is seen as fair is a prerequisite to keep them from actively looking for other opportunities but it is not sufficient on its own. And the promise of more money does not buy better results, regardless whether it is tied to reaching certain objectives or not.

Let people get on with their work. In an IT specialist's dictionary, the words “project manager” and “harassment” are right next to each other. The creative nature of many IT tasks clashes with traditional project planning and monitoring techniques - a challenge which leads many project managers to plan and monitor IT work particularly tightly. In the process, they alienate IT specialists both through an apparent lack of trust and, on a day-to-day basis, through frequent status update interruptions.

IT specialists are surprisingly good at working out day-to-day priorities if given the chance, and also of taking into account non-project tasks (fixing that creaking backup system, applying security patches etc.). Explicit development methodologies, in particular agile ones, encapsulate a lot of experience in resolving the clash between IT work and general project management. Once clear and stable objectives have been established, let people get on with their work. This does not just lead to greater productivity but, from a talent management perspective, creates the environment that IT specialists enjoy working and growing in.

Build personal relationships. If you are in any way managing an IT specialist you are faced with a formidable challenge: Unless you happen to be an IT specialist yourself, and in exactly the same specialist field, your hands tend to be tied through a lack of understanding of technical issues and possibly also through a cultural gap. In terms of talent management, you may feel like a car mechanic being responsible for tickling the full potential out of a Polish-Kisuaheli translator.

The key does not lie in the lure of an ever more sophisticated and ostensibly “scientific” set of management methods but in building personal relationships with each and every individual. IT specialists are not saints - they can be lazy, neglectful, irresponsible, wasteful or careless, and they might completely ignore the needs of the organisation. But only die-hard uncooperative IT specialists will persist with such undesirable traits and attitudes when they are picked up by a manager they trust and respect.

If you have earned that trust and respect through building a strong personal relationship you are also in a position to spot unused potential as well as the directions in which an individual can (and wants to) grow. Moreover, you will know how to challenge him or her in the most effective way.

It may not be a popular point but good talent management is not necessarily in perfect alignment with an organisation's short- and medium-term success. Building relationships with people in order to bind them to the organisation carries a responsibility - e.g. to let them go when they would otherwise hit a career dead end, or to encourage them to cut their hours before their family breaks apart, even if it has a painful impact on ongoing projects.

Talent managing IT specialists is a challenge. But it is a rewarding challenge and becomes much easier through understanding the mindset and way of working of IT specialists - and through genuinely wanting the best not just for the organisation, but also for them as individuals.

Posted by Sebastian Hallensleben

Sebastian Hallensleben works in the UK and Germany as an IT leadership consultant and strategy facilitator. This follows an in- house career of turning around, building, and managing IT teams in which he has worked with development, infrastructure, database, and support professionals in a variety of industries. He always welcomes contacts and connections and maintains the IT Leadership Forum on LinkedIn.

 He can be found at http://www.solysis.com and http://uk.linkedin.com/in/sebastianhallensleben

(c) 2010 Sebastian Hallensleben

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