Getting talent to nest

Turnover Crisis?
Just before the long weekend, a fellow IT enthusiast pointed my attention towards the following article: Solving the IT Turnover Crisis

Let’s bring forth an excerpt from the intro:

… You’ve probably noticed that the most talented software developers tend to not stick around at one place for too long. The least talented folks, on the other hand, entrench themselves deep within the organization, often building beachheads of bad code that no sane developer would dare go near, all the while ensuring their own job security and screwing up just enough times not to get fired.

This must be something a lot of people have experienced. The “top performers”, as the talented are often called, are generally the first to leave the leave the nest when trouble arises (f.e. yet another restructuring).

Why do they quit?
A quote from “The Wetware Crisis: the Dead Sea effect” explains best why the “untalented” don’t quit;

They tend to be grateful they have a job and make fewer demands on management; even if they find the workplace unpleasant, they are the least likely to be able to find a job elsewhere. They tend to entrench themselves, becoming maintenance experts on critical systems, assuming responsibilities that no one else wants so that the organization can’t afford to let them go.

Personally I would like to add that it’s often also caused because of geographic location. If we would look at the Belgian market, we would notice that most of the jobs are situated in the triangle Brussels-Antwerp-Ghent. The other areas (like the Flanders, Kempen, Limburg, …) have less opportunities that arise, so people can “get stuck” more easily. (Article in “De Standaard” ~ Dutch)

The article (Solving the IT Turnover Crisis) points out that the reason why skilled employees quit is a bit more complicated. In virtually every job, there is a peak in the overall value (the ratio of productivity to cost) that an employee brings to his company. They call this the Value Apex.

On the first minute of the first day, an employee’s value is effectively zero. As that employee becomes acquainted with his new environment and begins to apply his skills and past experiences, his value quickly grows. This growth continues exponentially while the employee masters the business domain and shares his ideas with coworkers and management.

However, once an employee shares all of his external knowledge, learns all that there is to know about the business, and applies all of his past experiences, the growth stops. That employee, in that particular job, has become all that he can be. He has reached the value apex.

If that employee continues to work in the same job, his value will start to decline. What was once “fresh new ideas that we can’t implement today” become “the same old boring suggestions that we’re never going to do”. Prior solutions to similar problems are greeted with “yeah, we worked on that project, too” or simply dismissed as “that was five years ago, and we’ve all heard the story.” This leads towards a loss of self actualization which ends up chipping away at motivation.

Skilled developers understand this. Crossing the value apex often triggers an innate “probably time for me to move on” feeling and, after a while, leads towards inevitable resentment and an overall dislike of the job. Nothing – not even a team of on-site masseuses – can assuage this loss.

Getting talent to nest?
Let’s check out dictionary.com about the word “nest”;

  • a snug retreat or refuge; resting place; home.
  • a place where something *** is fostered or flourishes: a nest of vice; a robber’s nest.
  • the occupants or frequenters of such a place.
    –verb (used with object)
  • to settle or place (something) in or as if in a nest: to nest dishes in straw.
  • to fit or place one within another: to nest boxes for more compact storage.
  • to fit together or within another or one another: bowls that nest easily for storage.

So basically you want to keep your “top performers” within your company…

Understanding nature
First of all, accept that

  • … employees will leave! : Don’t take it personally (as a company and as a manager). In fact you are probably already aware of this in your subconscious. We all know the “hit by a bus”-speech, where it serves as a metaphor to say that we know you’ll quit some day.
  • … money ain’t everything. : Offering somebody an extra 500€/month will keep him/her at your company for an additional 6 months. But eventually this person will leave as your tackling the symptoms, not the root cause. People just want to earn enough to get by, and they don’t want to feel that they are earning too little (compared to their co-worker doing the same thing).

Confusius says “Why chop at leaves, when one must dig at roots…”
So be sure the company soil is fertile. How do you want to keep someone at your company, when the soil he is nurtured in is getting depleted. People need variation to keep motivated, otherwise they’ll look for another nest.

A lector once said to me;

“Everyone needs to change functions every 3 to 4 years. It’s a natural thing, yet it depends on the (opportunities within the) company whether that move will be directed internally or externally.

So make sure your little tree (worker) has the correct soil (functions, grow/career path, …) and the right fertilizer (training, experience, …) to grow. Make sure you know your people, and are aware of where they want to be heading. Obtain their interests, their ambition, their personality (mbti?), …

The pond
You learned to accept that employees will leave. Now you might want to think about fishing in the pond of ex-employees when the time is right. Maybe you couldn’t provide for that one young potential in the past, but after following his/her career you notice that you want him/her back.

An interesting insight that is provide by the article is the use of “alumni”. This is a way where a company can provide means to facilitate keeping in touch with former employees.

Imagine how much different things would be if you were told that on your first day. Just about every task you do would be in consideration of your successor. Not only would you take pride in solving problems – and, of course, getting strong ROR (Return on Resume) for those solutions– but you’d also take pride in knowing that the guy who comes after you will have an easy time picking up your work. Just as your predecessor did for you.

The benefits don’t stop there. A company with a culture of quitting does not have ex-employees; they have alumni. This is far more than a semantic distinction. An alumni relationship is positive; something that people can take pride in; and one that keeps the door open for further opportunities on both ends. Let’s face it; we’re already curious about our former workplaces and try to keep up through former coworkers. It’d be that much easier if the company facilitated this in some manner.

The alumni relationship also helps with the flow of new personnel. While ex-employees are be hesitant to recommend the company they “broke up” with, alumni will champion it to colleagues in need of similar experience. Furthermore, there’s no sense of defeat when an alumni returns – armed with experiences from other organizations – for another tenure.

For consulting companies or services firms, maintaining a solid relationship with alumni is an excellent avenue to find new business. Who better to recommend as a vendor than a company that one had first-hand experience working at?

Note
Keeping on good terms is also the right attitude in job interviews. Either side may choose to back down during the negotiations. But always do this with a positive attitude. You may want to do business at a later stage too…
This stretches even to answering (job) soliciting mails with a small reply stating that there are currently no vacancies, or for whatever reason. Simply ignoring (not communication) is ALWAYS bad!

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