Retaining your best people

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You can replace equipment, infrastructure, tools, etc but at the end of the day it’s the people i.e. human capital which is the critical success factor in today’s competitive environment. Retaining key talent is one of the topmost priorities for all successful managers. In spite of the obviousness of this crucial responsibility, many organizations suffer from the ‘leaking reservoir’ syndrome. Most organizations have come to accept that it is acceptable to lose a percentage of good employees over a period of time – which is true to a great extent. The problem begins, however, when the crack in the reservoir becomes so huge that replacing people becomes a full-time endeavor and leaves little time to do anything else. A certain percentage of time invested in building strategies for growing and retaining your people in the long run prevents the talent leak from growing and saves you a lot of time and pain in plugging the hole later.

Strategies for retaining people

(1) Take a direct personal interest in all your team members

(2) Identify your best people

(3) Practice the 80/20 rule

(4) Place the right people in the right areas

(5) Create career development plans for all your key people

(6) Praise publicly and criticize privately

(7) Show empathy, not sympathy

(8) Share successes with the team, but take responsibility for failures

(9) Organize trainings

(10) Celebrate phase completion

(11) Balance the workload well

(12) Do not ask for too many updates

(13) Lead by example

(14) Motivate the maintenance team

(15) Sack non-performers tactfully


(1) Take a direct personal interest in all your team members

This can be done by following these simple guidelines:

(i) Know everyone by name

Incredible, but true. I have met too many managers who do not even know the names of their team members. Any corporate structure is like a pyramid. No matter what part of the pyramid you occupy, the strength of the pyramid depends on the bottommost layer and it becomes imperative that you know all the people who report to you directly or indirectly. At least, the best managers have an uncanny knack of remembering peoples’ names and making casual personal enquiries about the well being of anyone they meet. Since this kind of behavior is not always experienced it makes the people realize that they are being given personal attention and builds loyalty in the team. It satisfies the basic human craving of being noticed.

In his classic book “Strategies for success”, Jim Dornan mentions this very principle in the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, and I quote “An excellent example of this from history can be seen in the way Napoleon Bonaparte interacted with his men, he knew every officer of his army by name. He liked to wander through his camp, meet an officer, greet him by name, and talk about a battle or maneuver in which he knew this officer had been involved. He never missed an opportunity to inquire about a soldier’s home town, wife and family. When he did, it always amazed the man to see how much detailed personal information about him his Emperor knew.
Since every officer felt Napoleon’s personal interest in him – proved by his statements and questions- it is easy to understand the devotion they all felt for him.”

(ii) Connect with everyone

Tough one to explain but let’s consider an example. Archimedes discovered the lever concept wherein let’s say you wanted to move a heavy rock you would be better advised to use a long rod rather than trying to move it with your bare hands.

Similarly, when it comes to people you are better advised to build relationships first and then steer people in the direction you want them to move. Moreover, in this case, people will follow you willingly. Learn to persuade, not dominate. There is a vast difference between the two phrases ‘Can you please ensure that this is done?’ and ‘You need to complete this work by EOD today.’ One is a slight nudge or a request while the other is a kick. No one likes to be kicked.

Unfortunately, most managers are guilty of using “positional authority” to achieve their ends. John Maxwell talks about the various levels of leadership in his book “Developing the leader within you” and it is clear that positional authority is the worst form of leadership.

One way to measure where you stand on the leadership scale is to check how many juniors come to you for career advice and advice in other areas of their life. If people do not approach you, it means that you are not approachable which is a sorry state of affairs. You simply cannot progress if you are unable to connect with people and you can connect with people only when you take a genuine interest in them, their careers, lives, etc.

(iii) Protect your team at all costs

Protect your team from:

  • Overenthusiastic sales personnel who try to impose their sales targets on developers
  • Powerful stakeholders who impose deadline pressure
  • Prima donna developers who start dominating juniors
    Have genuine concern and take true care of your team – the best leaders are the ones who go to extreme lengths to protect the interests of their team. Sometimes, this may mean that you need to lock horns with your immediate superiors and higher management.
    Remember, your team is your 1st concern.

    Address all team concerns proactively - a concern, like a bomb can be handled if detected early. The greater the delay the worse it becomes.

    The result – people will start recognizing you as a person in whom they can put their faith and trust and become fiercely loyal.

    (iv) Solve problems even if it is outside the scope of the project

    One of your key responsibilities as a Project Manager is to clear all the obstacles which come in the way of your team members and prevent them from performing at the optimum level. While most PMs do handle all the nagging problems faced within the office premises, very few actually look beyond that.

    Onsite projects, for example, are always plagued with problems.Adjusting to the local food, traveling and place of residence, are basic requirements which should be taken care of at the very outset. I recall an onsite project wherein I had to visit a foreign country where the employer provided some excellent facilities like:

    • 1 free telephone call every week to keep in touch with the family
    • A video conference with family members once in 6 months
    • Occasional weekend trips to famous spots in the city
  • The buddy concept wherein one local staff whom the onsite person had to interact with regularly was also asked to help him during his stay for other nagging problems – in fact, this was a KRA for the year

    Small acts like these ensured that the employees were happy and there was negligible attrition in the project for almost 3 years. Funny, but treating every team member as if he is your biggest customer yields rich dividends in the long run.

    (v) Be absolutely honest and transparent

    Trust is the foundation stone of all relationships. Break trust and invite disaster. Be it organizational changes, cost cutting, layoffs, or any other news which impacts the team, always be the first one to inform the team openly and accurately.

    In “The 7 habits of highly effective people”, Stephen Covey mentions the ‘Emotional Bank account’ and I quote “An Emotional Bank Account is a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship. It’s the feeling of safeness you have with another human being.”

    Do all your team members feel safe when it concerns you – if not you need to work towards building up the deposits in that emotional bank account with everyone.

    (2) Identify your best people

    Suppose you have access to a pool of 10 developers and need to identify the best candidate to commence work on a difficult module. If you fail to identify the right person you will face problems later on with unfinished, substandard work and compromised deadlines. I usually use what I would like to call the POC – "Proof of Concept" strategy. Assign the task of developing the POC for a project related problem to the entire pool of available developers. The advantages are :

  • The proposed solution will tell you a lot about the individual’s capability
  • Usually, the turnaround time for any POC is a couple of days – effectively, you do not lose too much time in trying to determine who the right candidate is.

    Over a period of time, you will be able to determine what are the strengths and weaknesses of each individual in your team but the POC method always works at the initial stage.

    (3) Practice the 80/20 rule

    The Pareto principle, in the project management context would mean that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the team. This means that once you have identified your core 20%, make sure you are spending 80% of your time with them.

    Sometimes, the weakest developers in your team can end up eating up your entire time and bring down the entire project over a period of time. The same applies to your core team as well – remember, your team is only as strong as it’s weakest link. Sometimes, the best developers end up spending most of their time in resolving problems faced by their weakest colleagues. Never allow this to happen.

    The Pareto principle is beautifully illustrated in the book “Developing the Leader within you” by Dr.John Maxwell.

    (4) Place the right people in the right areas

    Over a period of about 3-6 months you will be able to pinpoint people’s strengths and weaknesses if you are always involved at the ground level and not just living on updates like average project managers. At this point of time it is important to strengthen the roles for the core 20% as all high-fliers eventually get restless. The following strategy can be used:

  • Excellent at analysis, design and finding solutions – needs to be in product development should be assigned the most difficult modules. It’s a win-win situation, on one hand the module gets delivered and on the other it also provides enough challenge for the developer and keeps him motivated.
  • Excellent at customer interaction and trouble-shooting. Understands the business impact well – needs to be in production support and over a period of time can occupy the team leader’s position in production support.
  • Excellent at co-ordination and customer interaction – can be assigned the role of an implementation expert. This role mainly involves interacting with other teams like DBAs, change managers, business users, testers, etc. It also demands that the person has the capability to understand an implemented solution entirely. Such a person may not necessarily be good at finding solutions but remember, his role as an implementer does not demand the same most of the time.

    Make sure expectations and responsibilities of the assigned roles are made clear to everyone involved. This tells the top performers that their careers are being taken care of. At the same time, it also ensures that the right responsibilities are being delegated to the right people and will eventually result in the project manager having greater control over his time. Designations are limited but roles can always be created.

    Sometimes, people may require counseling to understand their own strengths and weaknesses. More often than not, developers are only interested in coding new modules and do not realize where they can excel. This is where your powers of persuasion will be tested.

    Delegation is a two-edged sword, do it right and it will allow you to take up more work and lead to an increase in responsibility, do it badly and you will end up answering escalation emails and attending damage-control meetings.

    (5) Create career development plans for all your key people

    Most project managers never quite get down to working this step, yet, this is the key step to stem attrition and hold on to your best team members. The best people are usually interested in the following aspects of a job:

  • Career growth i.e. growth in responsibility
  • Growth in income
  • Better role

    Overall, the best people are mainly interested in knowing if the current job provides them enough opportunities to advance towards their long term career goals which might be of becoming an enterprise software architect, project manager, etc.

    The following steps can be followed:

    (i) Identify the long term career goals for each individual

    Use one to one meetings to identify the long term goals of each individual. This will be possible only if you have connected well with each individual as detailed in the earlier steps – if not, you may not even be able to initiate this meeting. The key here is to identify what aspects of the job the individual likes and where he would eventually like to end up in the field. At the end of this discussion both the individual and you should be clear about the following things about the individual:

    • Long term career goal for ex. becoming an enterprise architect
    • Current strengths – technical and personal
    • Current gaps – technical and personal
    • What should be the next step towards moving towards the role of enterprise architect?
    • What technology has the candidate not worked on till date and needs exposure?
    • What are his training needs which will help him move faster towards his goal?

      Make sure all these points are documented well and kept confidential. This discussion becomes the basis of future discussions.

      The candidate should start getting a vision and game plan as to what is required to achieve his long term goal and what is the next step. For ex. a software engineer should first aspire to become a Senior Software Engineer followed by Tech lead and so on.

      (ii) Map individual goals to project goals

      This is an extremely powerful concept. If you have followed project management practices at some level and have a clear idea of the project deliverables and the different technologies which will be used you will be in a position to do work allocation correctly. Before allocating any task, ask yourself:

    • Is the individual capable of completing this task?
    • Does it provide him “controlled stretch” which means whether the task will force the person to stretch his abilities and grow in the process?
  • Does it help him advance towards his long term goal?

    Do this right and you will end up having a high-performing team which is also highly motivated.

    Every assignment you allocate to an individual should help him move toward his next career goal. Between the decision to quit and the next job lies the quality of assignments given – it is the project manager who decides the team’s attrition rate to a great extent.

    “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

    - Zig Ziglar

    (iii) Create a leadership incubator

    If you have done the earlier steps right you will soon reach a point wherein you will have high-performing team members who will continuously take up new challenges. Over a period of time the entire team environment will start reflecting the same.

    (iv) Some will still move on

    Despite the best of opportunities some people will still choose to move on due to various reasons.

    Some will outgrow their immediate environment i.e. your project and will move on – thank them for their contribution. They will always remember you for the role you played in mentoring them.

    This is the point where the leadership incubator you have created will be put to good use – others will be ready to occupy the position of the person who has moved on. Succession planning needs to happen at all levels and not just at the topmost management levels.

    (v) Believe in everybody – wait for nobody

    One word of caution – you can only help someone to rise higher if he himself is interested and committed towards the same. People can be divided into 2 types – types A are the moving cars (ambitious, career oriented people) which only need to be steered in the right direction. Type B are the parked cars (comfortable, stagnating people) which need to be started off or even pushed in some cases. Do not spend too much time on Type B – remember the 80/20 rule.

    (vi) Replace yourself eventually

    Remember, your influence as a person will grow only when your people grow. You cannot rise unless you replace yourself first. For insecure people this will be hard to digest. You cannot occupy a new chair unless you vacate the chair which you currently occupy.

    This principle is beautifully brought out in the book “The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership” by Dr.John Maxwell.3 laws mentioned in the book are relevant in this context.
    The Law of Empowerment – only secure leaders give power to others
    The Law of Reproduction – it takes a leader to raise up a leader
    The Law of Explosive growth – To add growth, add followers – to multiple, lead leaders

    While it goes without saying that reaching this point will take time and effort – this is the only way to go forward and rise higher. The transformation happens within you first and the eventual handing over of higher responsibility to you is only an acknowledgement of what you have already become on the inside.

    (6) Praise publicly and criticize privately

    Never miss spotting someone doing the right thing – and always acknowledge and reward the same. People literally crave for a kind word and will eventually repeat their best performance when they are recognized for the same.

    On the contrary, if a situation demands that some harsh words need to be spoken, then always ensure that this happens in a closed door meeting and never in public. Also, take particular care that you do not violate someone’s sense of self-respect but at the same time you make a person realize the gravity of his mistake.

    (7) Show empathy, not sympathy

    Empathize with people when they miss project deadlines due to personal problems, but do not sympathize.

    The dictionary meaning of sympathy is “the feeling of being sorry for someone”,” support for or approval of something” and that of empathy is “understand and share the feelings of another”. There is a qualitative difference between both. When you show sympathy you will allow a person to drag you into his well of woe whereas when you show empathy you will help or empower him to solve his problem or move on and find someone else to do the job.

    Let’s face it, any real project will throw up countless problems at the project and at the individual level. Having empathy will ensure that you give everyone a fair chance but overdoing the same will only lead to a bad situation. This is a key factor to consider when a team member’s personal problems lead to failed deliverables or compromised deadlines.

    (8) Share successes with the team, but take responsibility for failures

    Always ensure that the top performers get public recognition for their efforts. This is easy in organizations where you have a quarterly rewards and recognition program. In organizations where this is not the case, the project manager needs to be creative. One way to do this is to be a good promoter of people, this leads to people becoming more and more motivated and striving to consistently meet the high standards they themselves have set.

    On the other hand, all failures need to be handled internally. Never reprimand the team members responsible for any mistakes in public. Failure makes a person feel miserable anyway – and highlighting the same too much only adds to his woes. The Project Manager needs to play a key role here in shielding his people.

    This is the hallmark of all great leaders. In “Wings of Fire:Autobiography of Dr.A.P.J.Abdul Kalam” an incident is mentioned wherein Dr.Kalam took total responsibility for the SLV-3 (Satellite Launch Vehicle) failure in front of a big group of scientists. The book also mentions another incident when he asked his team members to present their individual reports on the areas they were working on rather than he doing it himself thus giving the team an opportunity for recognition in front of the scientific community. No wonder he is considered one of the most successful scientists to have led India’s space and missile programme.

    (9) Organize trainings

    The training budget is a powerful tool in your hands, use it wisely. Create the training calendar in the beginning of the year keeping in mind the following requirements:

  • Technical requirements of the project
  • Individual training requirements to boost career growth
  • Any gap in skills that needs to be addressed

    Quote often it happens that a year passes by without the organizing of any proper training programs and the last quarter is packed with training programs of little value to the individuals involved and the organization itself. Never allow this to happen.

    Internal training programs can also be conducted by the various individuals involved in the project on technologies used in the project itself or otherwise. This is an opportunity for personal growth for many individuals.

    Trainings always give individuals a good release from project pressure and also helps to reinforce the conviction that the organization is serious about their future and increasing their skills.

    (10) Celebrate phase completion

    Whenever a major project phase is over, celebrate. Put the staff welfare budget to good use. Nine pin bowling matches, group movie outings are opportunities which allow people to recharge their batteries. It also provides ample opportunities to build team spirit and strengthen relationships.

    (11) Balance the workload well

    Ensure that no single individual is getting over burdened. This also calls for proactive leave management of the entire team. On occasions you may also need to force some workaholics to take leave.

    It is small acts such as these which help you make small deposits in the emotional bank account which we talked about earlier. And these deposits reap rich dividends when the time comes.

    (12) Do not ask for too many updates

    Do not be a status update maniac – trust your people to be responsible and deliver results. Ask for an update only when necessary – the best people will usually themselves keep you apprised of the status of the tasks they are working on.

    (13) Lead by example

    Always be a person worthy of emulation. Set high standards for yourself and do not impose any rule on the team which you do not follow yourself. People automatically follow what they see you do on a daily basis and not what you tell them to do. If you cannot be the 1st person to enter office at least be the last person to leave after a hard day’s work and do this only after personally ensuring that your entire team has left for the day. Always walk the extra mile for the team – always come to the forefront when required be it project problems, technical problems, any problem which hampers progress. When people observe you walking the extra mile consistently a wonderful chain reaction happens. Some of your elite team members start following your example and this leads to a multiplication of efforts and results.

    Consider the equation:
    1 person = 1 extra mile
    10 persons = 10 extra miles

    Do you think this will have a big project impact, you bet !

    As John Maxwell says, “The right to lead is earned, not given.” In his classic book “Right to lead” Dr. Maxwell mentions an incident wherein Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf stepped into a mine field to save an injured soldier and the ripple effect it had on all the people in his division. No wonder he was called upon to lead the critical operation during the Gulf war.

    True leaders always emerge out of nowhere when a major crisis develops.

    (14) Motivate the maintenance team

    Quite often, you will be faced with a situation wherein the production support team starts to feel that they are a group of 2nd class citizens and will develop an inferiority complex and get demotivated which can have a serious impact on the service delivery function. Motivating the maintenance team is a tough task but I have used the following techniques to good effect:

  • Emphasize the fact to the maintenance team that since they interact with the business users on a daily basis, they are the custodians of the image of IT more than anybody else, including you. The responsibility of the development team ends with project success, but the maintenance team is mainly responsible for ensuring that operations run smoothly and ongoing business success.
  • The job, contrary to the traditional belief is tough. More often than not the maintenance team is at the receiving end of bad design decisions taken during development and has to put in quite a lot of performance enhancing fixes in place as the usage of the system increases.
  • Only maintenance engineers understand a system and the business domain in totality. This is due to the sheer nature of the work. Development engineers never usually seek to understand modules outside the scope of what has been allocated to them.
  • The crucial life skill of crisis management – taking decisions under mounting pressure can only be learnt in production support. This can never be learnt in development where someone senior will shield you.

    When maintenance engineers understand the above points, they gradually begin to understand the value of the work which they do on a daily basis and where it fits in the bigger picture. And once people realize that their work is being valued they usually stop complaining.

    The same point is beautifully brought out in Sir Winston Churchill’s life during the Second World War. Dr.John Maxwell calls this the Law of the Big Picture in his book “The 17 indispensable laws of teamwork.” The book mentions how Sir Churchill managed to motivate coal miners to continue working on the inglorious task of working in the mines against opting to fight in the war on the frontline. A must read account if you are serious about going up on the leadership scale.

    Moreover, there are ample career options in production support as well. With most organizations embracing ITIL and standards such as ValIT gaining ground,the service delivery function is being seen as a key provider of ongoing business value. Once maintenance engineers realize that they are not in a dead-end situation and career growth options are available they will not display negative attitude. This is where the project manager plays a key role. Organize ITIL trainings and watch how the maintenance team starts enjoying their role.
  • (15) Sack non-performers tactfully

  • If you have recruited the candidate after doing a proper evaluation, you will never be faced with this option. However, on occasions you will be called upon to do the inevitable. How do you still retain trust and loyalty in the team? The following strategies have helped me:

  • Ensure that you give the non-performer a fair chance – try to place him in an area which involves routine work and which does not involve much thinking. Many routine maintenance tasks involve only log monitoring – poor performers can be accommodated in such areas.
  • Use counseling to good effect – give the person a chance to close gaps and raise his performance to an acceptable level
  • Ensure that all the other team members are well aware that the guy is failing to meet the minimum requirements of the job. This needs to be done in a subtle manner – it should not be too obvious.
  • Exercise all options before giving the final notice – and ensure that all the other team members are well aware that there really was no other option available.
    Maintaining transparency in such matters ensures that there is no loss of trust and loyalty in the team. People realize that no one can be continuously paid for doing nothing.

    In an interview on CNBC, Mr. Narayan Murthy, the chief mentor of Infosys mentioned that the best leaders have the ability to cast vision and the best people need to see themselves growing into important roles and achieving bigger goals in that vision. This is the best strategy to retain people.

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    About the Author

    Full Name: Sainath S
    Member Level: HonoraryPlatinum
    Member Status: PanelMember,Member,ITIL,PMP
    Member Since: 3/10/2009 3:02:15 AM
    Country: India
    Regards, Sainath S,
    Sainath S,PMP,CSM(Certified Scrum Master), ITIL V3F,COBIT 4.1F is a practising Project Manager and has diverse experience in leading global projects from inception to final delivery and closure. Find useful information on Project Management on his site

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    Comments or Responses

    Posted by: Raja on: 4/23/2009
    The best article I ever read on managing people.

    for (;;)
    Awesome !!! Awesome !!! Awesome !!! Awesome !!!
    Awesome !!! Awesome !!! Awesome !!! Awesome !!!

    Thanks Sainath, Keep it up!!!
    Posted by: Jituce on: 4/6/2011 | Points: 25
    Good Article !!!
    Posted by: Vishvvas on: 9/11/2011 | Points: 25
    Nice and very straighforward strategies. In the era of lobbying and information peddaling, it would be hard to even judge the best people, forget about trying to retain them. Many a times talent can be seen as threat to many others who are just surviving because of their godfathers and not because of their work.
    Ofcourse if organizations have vision and they value the human resources, these strategies would definitely prove vital for retaining the talent and doing a great job.
    It is not uncommon scene where the managers are happy to let go talent as they have little less challenge of managing the talented guys by feeding them with good work and rewards. This kind of thinking is not helping the IT industry as a whole & also affecting people's life and careers.
    These strategies cna be embraced easily provided one has open mind and progressive attitude.

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