Nurturing IT project leaders

8 simple ways to retain the best of your IT project teams


by Ty Kiisel - Woody Allen once said, "80% of success is showing up." I believe the greater challenge for most organizations looking to succeed involves keeping good people.

Employee turnover is a fact of life. Some studies even suggest that the average employee stays with a company for a maximum of five years before moving on. Even the Japanese (who have long been considered the poster-children for lifetime employment) are seeing the practice of job loyalty fade in popularity. During the 30 or so years of my career, I have watched the idea of lifetime employment go from being the exception to non-existent. In fact, none of my colleagues from 30 years ago are with the same company now.

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Despite the fact that companies are in desperate need of experienced and dedicated project management professionals to manage innovation and change, most organizations have come to accept employee turnover as an expensive fact of life. Robert Gunn, in an article published by the Harvard Business Review, asks, "How do you hold on to your best change leaders?"

Gunn surveyed 36 Fortune 500 companies on how well they embraced change and developed change leaders. Interestingly, "high-scoring companies met or exceeded leadership's expectations, and 62% of the executives who led these initiatives were promoted." According to Gunn, about 11% of the change leaders left these companies once the projects ended.

Creating what Gunn calls a "virtuous circle" by nurturing skilled executives capable of driving future change initiatives is important because, among other obvious benefits, "investors notice companies that are adept at managing change and supporting change leadership."

Project management and change leadership is important at a number of levels, compelling us to ask the question, "How do we keep our good project leaders and cultivate potential project leaders?" Citing his study of 84 major multiyear change initiatives completed between 1995 and 2005, Gunn suggests, "Promote them."

However, the path to promotion isn't the only answer. For most employees, quality of life is very important. Engaging and empowering the workforce is one of the most significant things an organization can do to motivate and inspire people to stay. Although the following eight tips may appear simplistic at first blush, they are often overlooked and apply to this conversation. As a side note, few people leave a job for monetary reasons -- it's typically associated with working for a manager or company that ignores one or more of the following tips:

  1. Listen to project team members
  2. Treat team members with courtesy and respect
  3. Sincerely praise a job well done
  4. Ask team members for their input
  5. Demonstrate trust with added responsibility
  6. Be fair and impartial
  7. Foster pleasant working conditions
  8. Provide opportunities for advancement

If 80% of success depends on your project teams showing up, the other 20% depends on keeping them there. Although there is no silver bullet for reducing attrition, nurturing future team leaders and providing opportunity for advancement just makes sense. What is your organization doing to keep the best people in place?

Ty Kiisel writes about project management issues and best practices for @task Project Management Software.

For more project management advice, see:
Project management: Scrapping a doomed project
Four things project managers can learn from base coaches
Prioritizing IT projects

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