What Geeks Want: 8 Tips for Retaining IT Talent
Insurance Experts' Forum, November 26, 2012
One thing I've been trying to emphasize in many posts here is the looming challenge many insurance companies have in technical staffing. Insurers depend on IT more and more to deliver customer information and satisfaction through new channels, develop new and better targeted products, and fight policy fraud and abuse. Insurers need to work harder than ever to keep their IT talent, a difficult considering the allure of startup culture. To put it in stark terms, working at the next Klout may have more appeal to many than the tried-and-true insurance conglomerate with its rooms full of mainframes.
That's why Paul Glen's book, "Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology," is even more of a critical read than it was when it was first published back in 2003.
In his seminal work, Glen provides guidelines on motivating technical staff. Geeks tend to be highly motivated by intrinsic factors—creativity, intellectual engagement—versus the more extrinsic motivators applied to the rest of the business staff, such as salaries and perks. (Not to say technical staff isn't fully motivated by money, it's just that they seek more than a paycheck in their work.)
While Glen tends to be a bit stereotypical with the image of a tech professional as a game-loving antisocial type, there's no question they tend to be a special breed. Many go home and do even more of their own programming as a hobby—how many actuaries do you know that spend their evenings at home studying mortality tables? (When they're not preparing for the next exam, that is.) Besides, Glen's advice can be applied to semi-technical or even project-focused business teams as well. And, these days, everyone has a bit of geek inside them:
1. Select wisely: “Choose the right people to be on the right projects... Since you can't imbue geeks with internally generated enthusiasm, select for it.”
2. Manage meaning: “In their frustratingly ambiguous world of questions, assumptions and provisional facts, geeks constantly need to make sense of their environment and the meaning of their work,” Glen says. This meaning comes from personal values, which typically include “developing knowledge, creating intricate and beautiful systems and proving their potential.”
3. Communicate significance: “Convey the importance or urgency of a project.”
4. Show a career path: “Most geeks are motivated to advance their careers, but have little information on how to do it,” Glen says. Often, they assume management is the only route to career growth. “Help them to see how they can grow,to enhance the value they deliver in ways that are comparable with individual interests and skills, and then link that to current work.”
5. Projectize: “Projects help turn work into a game, and geeks love games with objectives that delineate goals and success criteria.”
6. Engender external competition: “Most of the highly motivated and productive groups that I've encountered have found meaning in battling some form of 'bogeyman,'” says Glen. “The joy of creation is considerably enhanced by the thrill of participating in the defeat of evil with ingenuity. A good competition also helps to develop group cohesion.”
7. Limit group size: “As group size grows, colleagues become less individuals and more an undistinguished mass of anonymous faces.”
8. Offer free food... intermittently: “Never underestimate the power of free food.”
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