How to Retain the Living

Retain No ZombiesThis is the third of a series of four posts based on my interview for the Conscious Software Development Telesummit, conducted by Michael Smith, The Zombie Apocalypse is Not an HR Product: How to Recruit, Hire, Retain, and Develop the Living.

A certain amount of turnover is normal and necessary, especially in the information technology specialties. But that’s no reason to lose skilled team members you could otherwise retain.

Once you hire someone, how do you start them out right?

If you do on-boarding poorly, you’ll increase your short-term turnover rate. Don’t waste the first week by not being ready! It’s the little things: know where they will sit, have their computer and other assets ready, and so on. There is no silver bullet, but there is silver bird shot – lots of little things. Set up a buddy system for the newbies – don’t depend on the supervisor to do it all. Just like the new kid in school, the new hire needs to be accepted. Pairing an introvert and an extravert is probably not the best approach – try to understand the candidate’s preferences and needs during the interview process, and select a buddy accordingly.

Then interview again, two to three weeks after the new hire starts. Make sure their first pay check is correct, benefits elected, and so on. Get the compensation right, or you are wasting all of that effort involved in recruiting and getting that new worker on board. Find out what might be keeping that new hire from doing their work, or being efficient, and get it sorted out. Not every problem requires intervention, but move quickly to intervene when it does.

Finally, monitor your short-term turnover rate, and do whatever you have to in order to get exit interviews with everyone involved. The departing employee, their manager, colleagues, and whoever else had a meaningful contact with them. Take a look at the help desk records, to see if they had a bad experience. Even the receptionist can be a source of information. If you see a problem, or a growing trend, fix it!

What is the key to retaining solid team members?

Plainly, you retain individuals, rather than groups. But know your organization’s turnover rate, and why people leave. If you have a lot of voluntary terminations, find out why. Especially if certain departments have higher or lower rates.

First: People don’t leave jobs – they leave bosses. Good workers deserve good managers. Better still, they need leaders. The Servant Leader model is becoming the ideal in many organizations, and it has to flow from the top. Have zero tolerance for bullies, oppressors, and exploitation. Harassment is just a lawsuit waiting for an attorney! And pay attention to the Dilbert metric: if you see lots of Dilbert cartoons posted around the office, you are a Pointy-Haired Boss. There is no “probably” about it.

Second: Not everything is about money. You need to pay enough to take the issue of money off the table. Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive,” has upended the traditional motivation models. He points out several research studies confirming that where cognitive skills are required, higher incentives led to worse performance (which probably says nothing good about sales people and their compensation models). Pink notes that autonomy, mastery, and purpose lead to engagement.

  • Autonomy leads to innovation. Some examples of this in the real world include Atlassian’s quarterly “ShipIt days”, hackathons, and so on. Giving people the power to act on what they believe to be opportunities for improvement frequently leads to real improvement.
  • Mastery is not a result of training, but of application. Opportunities for doing new things provides learning on the way to mastery. This isn’t to say that routine work should be avoided, but that job enrichment opportunities should be identified and pursued.
  • People want a transcendent purpose. The Open Source movement has arisen from very smart people needing an outlet that will let them “put a ding in the universe,” as Steve Jobs so famously put it.

Retention and Affinity

Good teams tend to stay together, if the managers make it possible. As an employer of creative, skilled people, you are always in competition with that other bunch of smart people working somewhere else. Not that company, but that group. Smart people want to be around other smart people, and they’ll change jobs if they have to, in order to be around their peers. Retention frequently comes down to affinity – whether or not people feel like they fit in. You can’t make handcuffs golden enough to keep highly effective people in the company of colleagues that they feel are not in their league.

Of course, one size does not fit all. For some employees, retention hinges on the potential for promotion. For others, especially the skilled creative types, it’s just the search for more interesting puzzles. There are also generational trends. Millennials seem to have internalized the idea of brief tenure more than Gen X or Boomers, but you can retain them. You simply have to be mindful of their goals, and how they expect to achieve them.

In Part Four, How to Develop the Living, we’ll look at what’s required in order to make that new hire the person who can replace you.

New PM Articles for the Week of December 8 – 14

Ballon Over the TreesNew project management articles published on the web during the week of December 8 – 14. We give you a high-level view so you can read what interests you. Recommended:

PM Best Practices

  • Elizabeth Harrin interviews author Jeff Furman on what’s changed in the second edition of “The Project Management Answer Book.”
  • Allen Ruddock reminds us that project problems are nearly always people problems.
  • Kelsey van Haaster explains the hierarchy of laws, theories, and hypotheses, and thus why Conway’s Law is no such thing.
  • Bruce Harpham addresses a persistent form of workplace evil: reports. Well, the ones that no one ever reads are evil, if you have to prepare them.
  • Nick Pisano refines the thoughts on extracting and analyzing data across projects that he expressed in a recent post.
  • Michael Ipsaro identifies three key knowledge resources for those engaged in either procuring or delivering IT services to the U.S. federal government.
  • Ryan Ogilvie points out the need to begin a service level management initiative with the development of a service catalog.
  • Saar Bitner demonstrates the problems of using Excel for data analysis, and proposes BI software as the more sustainable alternative.

Agile Methods

  • Mike Cohn notes that, although the team needs to select their own sprint duration, sometimes the Scrum Master has to step in and make the decision.
  • Johanna Rothman suggest that there are times when you need to move away from iterations, and toward flow. Insert Kanban and Scrumban advocacy remarks here.
  • Charles Settles summarizes three popular team collaboration products, for non-traditional projects.

Looking Ahead

  • Paul Baumgartner speculates on how project management, as a practice and a profession, will evolve over the coming years.
  • Jelani Harper identifies the business drivers for the Internet of Things in 2015.
  • Brad Egeland shares his “wish list” for project management in 2015.

Risk Management

  • Glen Alleman explores managing in the presence of uncertainty, as expressed in Tim Lister’s statement, “Risk Management is project management for adults.”
  • Kailash Awati defines internally generated risks, and explains why they make risk management more difficult.
  • John Goodpasture shares the mixed metaphor of Black Elephants.
  • Eric Anderson summarizes the diplomatic aspects of enterprise risk management, as outlined in an article by Lawrence Quinn.

Being Effective

  • Adriana Girdler lists her guiding beliefs, and argues that our beliefs drive our decisions and behavior.
  • Harry Hall notes the common reasons that people avoid goals, and tells us why we should set new ones and try once again to reach them.
  • Smita Mishra advises other women: forget about a mentor, and find yourself a sponsor.
  • Rich Maltzman shares a discovery:, a site which allows you to discover and listen to radio content and podcasts from anywhere in the world.

Pot Pouri

  • Scott Berkun notes that what you say is more important than what you think.
  • Adam Shostack addresses a pernicious trend: “It’s easier to snark than to contribute.”
  • Adrian Fittolani recalls how he learned to work long hours. And how he learned not


How to Recruit the Living

No Zombie Want AdsThis is the second of a series of four posts based on my interview for the Conscious Software Development Telesummit, conducted by Michael Smith, The Zombie Apocalypse is Not an HR Product: How to Recruit, Hire, Retain, and Develop the Living.

Most organizations are seeing a talent shortage. Recruiting people with the right skills and experience, at the right point in their careers, who will fit in the existing culture is one of the biggest challenges facing the IT leadership team. But how we recruit reflects the character of our organization, and we usually won’t get a second chance to make a good impression.

What are these odd-looking job descriptions we keep seeing on job boards?

Most applicant tracking systems include various parts of job descriptions and other details describing the work that the employees do, sourced from the HR system. When a requisition for a new hire is processed, a description of the job is built from those pieces. The less often that a particular position is recruited, the less likely that the recruiter will understand what the work will consist of, and the more likely that those pieces will be assembled in meaning-free combinations. Recruiting software maker iCIMS recently conducted a survey of both hiring managers and recruiters that confirmed the lack of communication and understanding between them.

The hiring manager should ensure that the public-facing description of the position is meaningful and accurate. For example, don’t ask for five years of experience in a new technology, and don’t ask for weird combinations. Make sure that the level for the position, e.g. sole contributor, manager, director, and so on, is correct and that the description of the work is appropriate for that level.

Learning From Bad Examples

I recently collected three samples from a job board. They weren’t specially selected to prove any points; just random requisitions. Each of them included examples of very common errors that should be easy to spot and correct, if anyone bothers to look.

Example: Requisition for programmer analyst. “Key Skills: Knowledge of C, C++, Java, ASP, .NET, C#, VB.NET, PHP, COBOL, ColdFusion, Classic ASP, VB6, VBScript, JavaScript/Ajax, JSP, Python, PL/SQL, T-SQL, and XML/HTML.” And a Secret clearance. Seriously? “Other skills: Basic programming skills.” In that case, what did you mean by knowledge of all those technologies?

Ensure you identify must-have and nice-to-have skills and experience, as such. Not everything is a key skill! I’m not sure what the people who posted this job expect, but it plainly is not going to attract people who have deep knowledge and experience in any of those technologies, let alone all of them.

Example: “QA Project/Test Manager. This is a Director-level role.” Then they list the requirements. First requirement: “Responsible for Tracking Requirements Tasks Start and End Dates.” Tracking dates? This is a director-level position?

Don’t mismatch duties with titles, or you’ll drive qualified people away. In addition, your company will look clueless. The biggest challenge most job-seekers have is understanding whether they are qualified or possibly over-qualified for a position. When you send this sort of mixed message, the highly qualified people move on to the next job requisition, and those with nothing to lose and time on their hands apply for the job.

Example: “Project manager or project coordinator.” Looking at the description, they want extensive business skills and management experience, so why ask for a coordinator? It drives away the experienced people, who think it will pay like an entry level position.

Make it clear what you want in the title. Think SEO! After all, the applicant is finding your requisition through search engines. Be selective about the terms you use and how you use them. Many of the buzz words, abbreviations, and credentials are misused in these job postings. Don’t give your potential applicant the impression that your organization doesn’t get it, or you’ll only attract the ones who don’t get it, either.

How do they determine who is actually considered for a position?

Because requisitions are exposed to the world, some draw literally thousands of applications. Many of these applicants are only marginally qualified, making it hard to find those you actually want to consider. Consequently, modern applicant tracking systems score the applicants, based on the criteria provided by the hiring manager, in order to get the pile down to a manageable few. The recruiter doesn’t know the difference between PL/SQL and T-SQL, and you shouldn’t try to explain it. Managers who don’t take the time to provide the right filters risk eliminating applicants they might actually want to consider. Specify whether you want to filter out or require certain combinations. Like any other system, you have to use it the way it’s designed in order to get the best results.

The Hiring Manager’s Responsibility

As the hiring manager, you need to look at the requisition posted on your organization’s job board, and ask yourself three questions:

  • Would I have applied for this position, a few years ago?
  • Will the people I want to work with apply for this job?
  • Will I want to interview the people who apply for this job?

If you hesitate to say “Yes” to any of them, you need to intervene, immediately. Most of the people actively looking for jobs have alerts saved on the aggregator boards, like Indeed, SimplyHired, or CareerJet. If you post junk, it will quickly get an audience, and you may not get a second chance to make that first impression.

In Part Three, How to Retain the Living, we’ll consider what is required to on-board and retain the employees you’ve recruited and hired.