How Do You Attract, Engage, and Manage a Technical Team?

techI just completed a fascinating radio interview with two IT leaders discussing how to retain and manage a highly technical workforce.

How do you, as a leader, develop a highly engaged technical team? We all have technical teams, whether they are engineers, scientists, researchers, designers, artists, writers, or even customer service agents.

Well these folks are often in great demand. Today 30% of all tech workers could find a better job within 60 days (Dice research), so if you dont keep them happy they are likely to find work elsewhere. How do we best attract and engage them to stay happy and productive?

This talk included Steve Safier, IT and HR leader at Panasonic, and John Higginson of Wheels – and we discussed real world leading practices in engaging, retaining, and managing tech teams.

Let’s face it – the world of tech is possibly the most dynamic and competitive talent market in the world. This was a great talk (replay here)..I learned a lot.

Let me summarize some of the topics we discussed:

1. Technical people love to work on great projects.

Steve and John agreed that technical people love to work on great, fun projects. As Steve put it, they don’t want to “waste energy” on things that won’t see the light of day. So as you attract great people, make sure you excite them about the project itself, give them the opportunity to see the project through, and show them how much value the project is delivering to your clients or customers.

2. Focus on culture, not “heros”

We had a long discussion about culture, and there was a total agreement that “HIPOs” or “Heros” are not always a good thing. Sure there are some people who are true gurus in certain areas, but if we over-promote or over-recognize these people the rest of the team feels left out. Plus every “hero” can make mistakes and they often leave, so we can’t build teams which are dependent on certain gurus.

I mentioned that I’ve worked for companies that over-hype Heros and those companies had very low levels of productivity when these people weren’t around – this model reduces a feeling of empowerment unless these Heros are coached to be good leaders as well.

3. Give people opportunities to speak up.

Steve and John both described programs they built to encourage open feedback. Panasonic has an “open exchange” meeting which lets technical people (not leaders) talk about what’s on their mind. Wheels has open meetings (“Ask Anything” meetings) which let anyone provide input and questions (people can text their questions) for discussion, letting people stay anonymous if they wish.

Both leaders reinforced how important it is for leaders to be quiet and let people offer feedback, encouraging the team to listen. Many technical professionals are not willing to speak up (many certainly are), so we should create lots of places for people to provide feedback in any way they feel comfortable.

4. Forget the hierarchy. Manage people in small teams.

Technical people don’t want to be pigeon-holed into huge teams (I remember the old “database and cobol” teams in IT when I was young). They are widely engaged when they are part of small, agile software teams where they know their peers and really work closely together to build or deliver something.

The famous “Mythical Man-Month” by Fred Brooks talks about how the more people you put on a team, the slower the project goes. This is increasingly true today. Everyone agreed that we need to make teams small and let them work closely together.

And as far as “leadership” goes – build a culture of hands-on coaching leaders. We all agreed that “stack ranking” and “hands off managers” have to go.

And, by the way, don’t push everyone into management as part of their growth path. Many technical people become managers and then realize they hate it. Both leaders told us they want to give people lots of growth opportunities in technical and project roles … and don’t over-sell management as the best way to grow.

5. Give people an opportunity to learn, grow, and experience new technologies.

Which leads us to #5. Give technical people training, opportunities to learn new skills, and lots of development. They thrive on learning. Steve mentioned that they studied retention and found that the biggest factor in retention was whether or not an individual had attended a technical class.

Remember that tech professionals are always dealing with new tools, new technologies, and potential disruptors to their careers. If you let them learn new things and work on new technologies, they’ll likely love working for you. (And let people teach others what they know: technical companies have has hundreds of internal training and knowledge sharing sessions every year, encouraging engineers to teach others.) All our research reinforces this finding.

6. Build a culture of coaching, not just “output.”

One more thing. We talked about culture and how important it can be among technical teams. John mentioned that he worked in a company with a “blame” culture – where people would always “blame others” when something didn’t go well. (I’ve been in companies like this too.)

The reaction from both John and Steve was that leadership, culture, and values are critically important in technical teams. Technical professionals want to be part of a bigger team and they want to be valued at work (don’t we all?) – so we don’t want to push too hard for “output” and miss the focus on “culture.”

I’ve worked in some very high performing companies which were not such great places to work. If that’s your culture, be careful because you may have built a “hero” culture that won’t sustain itself over the long term.

Technical professionals in IT, product development, marketing, and engineering make up a huge part of the modern workforce. Think hard about how you manage your technical team – if you manage them well you’ll likely build an amazing organization.

Image compliments of McMaster University

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