How to make your best IT people stay

Robert Pischke, CIO of Lehigh Hanson, shares how he fixed his IT group's attrition issue. Check out his five-part plan
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Harvard Business Review How to Keep Your Top Talent CIO

Every morning when my team gets out of bed and their feet hit the floor, I want them to be motivated to come into work. I want them engaged and wanting to make a difference. When your heart, soul, and mind are working together, that’s when you achieve great things.

That’s the team I’m lucky to have today – but it’s not the one I’ve always had. When I joined Lehigh Hanson six years ago, the attrition rate was three times the Gartner benchmark of 6.5%. Employees just weren’t engaged, and that needed to change.

[ Are you simultaneously piling too many projects on your team? Read our related article, The overcommitted organization. ]

Lehigh Hanson is one of the largest cement and construction materials companies in North America, located in the Dallas–Fort Worth area where competition for talent is fierce. My job is to transform a 140-year-old company, but to do that I need the IT department to be with me, and I need them to be engaged. Here’s what we did to transform our group and drop our attrition rate to zero.

1. Determine why people leave 

When I joined Lehigh Hanson one of the first things I did was read every exit interview. Of the people who were attriting, there were some common themes around communication and career management. 

To tackle the communication issue, I implemented a town hall meeting and sent out an internal newsletter about every six to eight weeks. Both served to improve the communication within our group because triple the attrition rate just wasn’t acceptable.

To fix the career management issue, we developed what I call “manufactured opportunity.” This was about promoting and offering lateral moves: If you’re a Level 2, you’re promoted to Level 3, for example. We also wanted to provide the opportunity to move folks laterally, from a business analyst to a project manager role, for example, because sometimes you’re just sick of eating pizza every day. 

At every one of these town hall meetings I stand in front of the group and let them know that they have a responsibility: If they want to do something different, let me know so I can make that happen. It might not be in a week or a month – but they have the obligation to help me manage their career with them. 

2. Thank your team in multiple ways

Little gestures add up, and they mean a lot to your team. Six years ago, for example, another leader and I started a tradition in which our two departments host a Thanksgiving potluck. We buy the meat and ask our teams to bring their family’s favorite dish. Over the past few years, more departments joined in, and this tradition has grown from close to 400 people to more than 700. It’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone to get together.

We also like to recognize team members. If we catch you working a weekend, working late, or bailing someone out, for example, we’ll give you a $50 or $100 American Express gift card. And when it’s your birthday, I take you out to lunch, write you a handwritten card, and slip in a Starbucks gift card for a small, personal touch.

And finally, comfort matters. When I joined Lehigh Hanson, people were not permitted to wear jeans. I made a proposal to the CEO to implement a jeans day, and after some convincing, he agreed. This led to an initiative to partner with some of our vendors to provide our team high-quality apparel to wear on Fridays: We feature their logo on one side and ours on the other. Our team loves it.

3. Implement a training incentive

"I doubled the training budget. Great, right? Wrong. No one took advantage of it."

In my first year at Lehigh Hanson I doubled the training budget. Great, right? Wrong. No one took advantage of it. I talked to my team about it, and you know what happened? Nothing changed, again. 

We have something in place called MBOs – management by objective. A percentage of that corresponds to the financial results of the corporation, and another percentage is your personal delivery. Not your merit, not your performance, but your delivery. 

I told my team that they were required to train themselves eight hours. If they did, I’d pay them a bonus. I got a good uptick from that, so I gradually increased the hours I required them to train. Last year they were required to train 24 hours. Finally, people trained because it was appealing to them. They figured, “You’re paying my salary, you’re paying for the training, and you’re paying me a bonus to train.” Everyone wins.

4. Broaden each team member's skill set

You need employees with vertical expertise – your .NET resources, your DBAs, your ABAP programmers – but you also need employees with breadth. That’s something we give employees the opportunity to hone at Lehigh Hanson. 

I need my business analysts and project managers, for example, to understand quote to cash, purchase to pay, budget to report, or produce to stock. They need the opportunity to work on projects for the corporate center, employee services team, and the shared services center. 

When an opportunity arises, I’ll find a project manager and give them a mentorship opportunity and say, “You’ve specialized in infrastructure for your last six projects. I’d like to come onto an applications project.” It’s another way to challenge them so they’re not eating pizza every day.

5. Take your team on the journey

Three years ago we moved into a new office building that we renovated with beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows showcasing an incredible view and an open-concept floor plan. There’s only one office with a door – mine – which means everyone else’s workstations touch the glass. We wanted everyone to share the view.

When we were designing the space, I took a dozen people on the team to tour the workspaces at other big-name companies to get a feel for what modern architecture looks like. All the interior designers and architects we worked with called me crazy for toting so many people along. I said, “Why? Because I ask my employees to come along with me on a journey to transition?” I needed to engage people to make sure they came with me on that transition to a better place.

Lehigh Hanson isn’t Apple or Google or Amazon. We make rocks. My aspirations for this company are much bigger than the floor in this building; I’m here to take care of the people. If they’re with me, we can transform the company and we can transform the industry. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

[ Struggling to find candidates who "fit"? Read also: How to hire with culture in mind. ]

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Based in Irving, Texas, Lehigh Hanson and its affiliated companies are part of the HeidelbergCement Group, an $18 billion global market leader in aggregates used for building materials and a prominent player in the fields of cement, concrete and other construction materials.

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