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Ways to crack the IT talent retention problem when money isn't the answer

CIOs from Partners HealthCare and Harvard University discuss aspects of their talent retention strategies.

Finding ways to attract and retain top IT people is a major battle for today's CIOs. The quest for IT talent can be especially difficult for nonprofit organizations, where workplace culture and mission must often make up for the heftier paychecks offered by for-profit businesses. That's the case for Jim Noga, vice president and CIO for Partners HealthCare, and Anne Margulies, vice president and CIO for Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University.

Noga, who was the CIO of Massachusetts General Hospital for 17 years prior to taking on his new role in 2011, oversees an IT organization of 1,600 employees and recently restructured the performance appraisal process to include evaluating employees on their soft skills, such as their execution of company values. Margulies served as the CIO for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts before becoming the first female CIO at Harvard University in 2010. She oversees 1,300 Harvard University IT employees and ushered in the HUIT Cup as a friendly employee recognition competition.

Noga and Margulies shared talent retention secrets in a panel discussion at the Society for Information Management's annual gathering in Boston, where they discussed the following:

  • What they look for in an IT candidate
  • Why and when feedback is important
  • How CIOs set the tone

The discussion was facilitated by Gerald Chertavian, CEO and founder of Year Up, a Boston-based education and training program for low-income young adults.

On finding talent today

Anne MarguliesAnne Margulies

Anne Margulies: One fundamental quality we hire for is adaptability -- individuals who have a broad-enough base in technology that they can adapt and change. Especially when I'm hiring more senior people, I look for people who are genuinely empathetic and have an inner ability to understand the impact of our systems. I look for people who are curious, who will take a risk and take a foot off of first base, and who will push hard and try to understand root causes or solve problems by asking hard questions. These [skills] are hard to find. It is also hard to find people who can simplify. The world is made up of a continuum of people: On one end, there are 'complicaters'; on the other end, there are simplifiers. … IT is inherently complicated; higher [education] is inherently complicated. So a fundamental problem-solving skill is being able to simplify.

On talent retention

Margulies: We've started paying more attention to who is leaving as opposed to what the [turnover] rate is. We need some healthy turnover, but we can't lose key people who not only potentially have good leadership skills, but who also know and understand how to get things done at a place like Harvard and still have room for growth and potential. Of course, we have some people in some areas where the technology is so specialized and so complex that we can't afford to lose that knowledge. We have an initiative under way now at Harvard where we're identifying all of the people … it would be most painful for us to have leave. And we're coming up with a specific retention program for each one of them.

On career development

Jim NogaJim Noga

Jim Noga: It is important to have a formal career development initiative within an IT organization. The time to do that isn't during the performance appraisal, because that can set off some unusual dynamics, especially if things aren't going well. We have a midyear discussion in terms of what training employees need and what they aspire to be. There are people who are happy and very good at what they're doing, and we want to recognize that; we don't want to push people where they don't want to go. We also recognize that we may be growing people, but there comes a time within an organization, because of the resource base and needs, that you may be preparing an employee for another job in another organization.

On building a workplace where IT people feel they are accomplishing something

Margulies: I recently heard a talk by a Harvard Business School faculty member Teresa Amabile. She's written a book … not so much about what brings people to work, but what motivates them. The single greatest motivating factor for people at work is the feeling of making progress. So it's not money, it's not getting the [HUIT] cup, it's not all of those programs that managers tend to put into place. It's the feeling that at the end of each day, [an employee] actually got something done and made very real, tangible progress moving forward. The most important thing we need to do as managers and leaders is create the environment where employees have enough autonomy and mastery in whatever skills are needed to move the ball down the field.

On talent management

Margulies: This might sound really simple, but one of the hardest things in developing talent is giving feedback. It's not a natural skill for us. Most managers want to be liked by the people who work for them, and it's hard to give critical feedback that is genuinely constructive and can help the person grow. And it's hard to make the time for it because we're all so busy. But if you don't do it in a timely way, it just doesn't have the same kind of impact.

On performance appraisal

Noga: It's hard work to evaluate a person on values. We do a couple of things: When a person is coming up for their performance appraisal, we ask them to identify three people we should talk to. Of course that's self-selection, so we'll also talk to three people they didn't ask us to talk to and get some impressions. What's great about that is that [is that] usually, between everyone, we get the whole narrative for the review. That's an annual process … we're piloting.

More on training and recruiting top talent

Talent development and mentoring bring business, IT closer together

How to grow your IT talent

Dropbox CEO on how to recruit top talent

The people who report directly to me, for example -- I'll ask them to evaluate all of the [employees who work the] next level down on how their people are doing on values. And then -- here comes the uncomfortable part -- I get the whole team in the room, and we go through every person's staff and other people react. It becomes a very interesting conversation because sometimes the manager is insulated from the behaviors that might happen outside of their line of sight. And if you have enough people in the room, you get a pretty balanced view.

On leadership

Noga: Managers are focusing on what I would call the technical aspects -- the software and the hardware and making sure you're blocking and tackling. But in a leadership role, you need to be spending the majority of your time on the 'peopleware.' There's this great Colin Powell quote that I often use. He said [paraphrasing], 'In the military, if your troops come to you with an issue and you don't address it, they come to one or two conclusions: either you don't care or you don't have an ability to deal with it. And both are leadership failures.' It's something I think about on a weekly basis as I reflect [back]: Have I really done everything I can? Because people take note.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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Are you evaluated on how well you exemplify company values as part of your performance appraisal process?
We are evaluated on company values but the values, as stated, are far too abstract to allow the everyday (Jane or Joe) to relate these values to the tasks they perform on a daily basis. This process would be far more relevant if there were several different sets of values for each level of leadership within the company. This way, when someone goes to fill out their review, they will be evaluating themselves against a standard that actually makes sense to what their actual role within the company is.
It's not explicitly mapped with performance appraisal process
I work in local government and I can't remember the last time I had an appraisal, with an ever shrinking workforce, it would be good if we had an initiative under way where we were identifying all of the people where it would be most painful for us to have leave, but I doubt it will ever happen, it feels like a sinking ship, last man out of here please switch off the lights!
No. My experience (since 1980) is the performance appraisal is a nuisance to management. One can do a superior job but only mediocre raise. Company values have never been mentioned on performance appraisal.
Yes, as a matter of fact, we have a list of something like 8 company values (each one is quite extensive too, with examples) and we are expected to comment on how we have exemplified that particular value. 

I agree with dneudeck  though, managers and employees alike tend to look at the whole process as a nuisance at my company. 
Not explicitly, but our core values impact the way we work, so we are evaluated indirectly.
This is good, well developed advice that everyone should heed.
I like the bit on complicators vs. simplifiers. I feel like I work with many complicators and it is beyond frustrating. I wonder how someone would go about identifying a simplifier during hiring?