Good Employees Stay Loyal, Great Talent Follows Challenges

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This week’s article is just an observation that I have made over a decade’s time in the IT business. I have had the privilege of working with some highly talented people, and I have had the honor of working with exceptional employees. Very rarely is someone both.

The techniques to develop an ideal employee focus on indoctrination. We do not want an employee to question too much of what they are told to do. We assign employees duties and expect them to follow-through to produce satisfactory results. Employees who stick to the processes that they are prescribed are rewarded based upon the measurable results that such work produces. These rewards are usually monetary in nature, and eventually promotions to positions which have the objective of maintaining the status quo.

The techniques to develop talented professionals are completely counter productive to the development of an ideal employee. We want our most talented professionals to question everything in order to improve upon the processes of our organizations. Talented professionals are rewarded based upon how useful their observations and analysis work are to the organization. These rewards are not monetary in nature, but instead they are empowering rewards that might include monetary rewards for the purpose of removing obstacles from such people’s lives.

For the good employee more money from a reasonable raise in income to maintain a comfortable standard of living is the carrot. For the talented professional it is a large increase in income for the purpose of acquiring enough goods and services so that their standard of living is never a distraction from their work that is the true reward. In some cases it is just cheaper to provide the perks directly to such talent in the form of company cars and living arrangements (even these are just the tip of the iceberg for some organizations).

If this comes across as elitist that is because it truly is. Only the more elite talent can justify such high salaries that they can afford to hire others to manage their daily affairs for them. This occurs at different levels throughout a person’s career. When I first started in IT I wore jeans and t-shirts to work, because I was doing work that paid me enough to afford that sort of wardrobe. Now I have a role that requires that I wear a suit and tie most days.

I do not wash my suits and ties at home though. I pay a dry cleaner to do it for me. In fact, I pay a little bit extra for that dry cleaner to visit my home twice a week to both pick up and drop off my laundry so that I do not have to bother with it myself. Not because taking care of my laundry is a chore that I am not capable of doing myself, but because I want to stay focused on solving the problems of my profession and do not want to be thinking about my laundry at all. I also demand, and I use the word “demand” deliberately here, that my company pay me enough that I do not even care when the dry cleaner’s bill is posted to my credit card. That is just part of the price for my company to retain my talent, and my company understands this. They will never argue with me if I were to ask for a raise to cover the cost of dry cleaning. They pay me enough to begin with that it never will become an issue in the first place.

Give me enough cash that I can afford to have others take my cash. You and I would both prefer that I keep my time instead in order to solve our mutual problems. At least that is how good companies approach these kinds of problems.

This same logic extends to people making enough income so that they can hire others to clean their homes, have nannies for their children, be personal trainers, and countless other roles. Steven Spielberg does not have a personal assistant because he believes managing his own calendar is beneath him. He has a personal assistant in order to take care of any work that is not related to the creation of his next film.

Note: I have absolutely no idea why or even if Steven Spielberg has a personal assistant. I just wanted to use a known name to illustrate my point with. If you are willing to pay me enough, Mr. Spielberg, go ahead and make me an offer.

This is probably the greatest challenge that an IT manager faces. Your best employees will stay with you as long as you treat them fairly. Jack Welch often described such employees as your “backbone” group. You must reward them with a good wage, excellent benefits, and a safe and secure work environment. Without a strong backbone your organization will fall apart under pressure. Make no mistake: Just having the talent is not enough!

Yet your most talented professionals need something beyond just financial rewards. You are going to pay them large amounts of money, but the real reward for a talented professional is the freedom to pursue challenges that are interesting. This is one of the ways in which you identify the talented professional from the good employee. The talented professional is eager to take on the most difficult challenges in order to turn them into profitable opportunities, whereas the good employee tries to contain and minimize such situations. Your talent wants to cure what ails you, while your good employees want to quarantine such problems until you find those cures for them to apply.

So how do you retain great talent? To me the answer is simple: You do not. Great talent follows what they perceive to be the greatest challenge at that moment. Do not ask what rewards will make your most talented professionals happy. Instead provide enough rewards that your talent will not be distracted from their work by daily routines, and find problems that will keep your most talented professionals busy.

Better yet, find roles for your best talent where they themselves choose what problems they will investigate. Einstein worked as a patent clerk because it paid him well enough to support his family, but did not demand enough of his attention so that he could focus on his incredible thought experiments. Once his genius was recognized Einstein worked at the organizations of his choosing, and he always chose the ones that would not dictate his work to him. Einstein just wanted to understand how the universe worked, and whatever role was best suited to helping him pursue that challenge was the role that he was going to take.

The lesson is that you do not retain the best talent, but instead it is the best challenges that retain the best talent. Learn how to make that phenomenon work in your organization’s favor.

Finally, be ready for the inevitable outcome: Your best talent will eventually leave or evolve in some manner. You cannot prevent it. Great managers and executives understand this. The most exceptional talent will either take over your organization or turn into your competition. It is just the nature of a free market economy.

Which is why great managers and executives make sure that their organizations are staffed with good employees. You never know how long it will be before you find your next great talent, so you better be able to rely on your good employees in the meantime.

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