Prevent the exit interview: How CIOs can rethink tech assignments to aid talent retention
Technology workers are a hot commodity in the age of sky-high salaries and massive sign-on bonuses. One area where employers are struggling to connect with workers is showing them the possibilities of a mid- to long-term career arc — and why staying is in their best interest.
Software engineer Ben Shive was at an inflection point in his career path after several years at a transport software company. A larger firm bought his company in 2020 and, as the acquisition progressed, he was left to maintain one particular piece of software essentially on his own. Shive felt maxed out.
Then an offer came through LinkedIn to join Meta as a software engineer. The possibility to pick projects was an enticing selling point.
"It's almost the complete opposite," said Shive of the dynamics of his new role. "You largely direct what you want to work on."
Workers in tech are quitting in droves to upgrade their compensation, move to more senior roles or seek out more meaningful work. And it's a candidate's market. There are far more positions open than available talent.
To retain workers, executives must align skills and internal needs. A well built resource management practice can help ensure projects are assigned to the right people, and top talent has the runway to see what's next in their careers.
But communication, training and flexibility are essential.
Companies should allow talent to flow naturally to problem areas they can spot and solve, said Miles Ward, CTO at SADA, a cloud solutions provider. For cloud architects especially, retention hinges on giving professionals leeway to find a place of higher impact by themselves.
"It's too late to catch employees once they've already decided that the next right step for them is into another organization."
SVP of Engineering at Appian.
A project could be second or third place in priority to executive leadership, but first place in terms of an organization's ability to reap benefits, according to Ward. Assigning workers to specific projects is, perhaps, the wrong approach, he said.
Talent retention is an uphill battle, particularly in tech where workers have the lowest intent to stay in their jobs compared to other corporate functions, according to Gartner data. Employers across industries are seeking workers to backfill open roles, with job postings in June up 62% versus the same month last year, CompTIA found.
With demand up, there's even more urgency to make sure technology experts are satisfied in their roles. Staff can't feel engaged by the work they're doing unless they're aware of the ultimate purpose, said Ryan Downing, VP and CIO, Enterprise Business Solutions at Principal Financial Group, who oversees a team of 3,000 technologists for the financial services company.
"The key thing we really try to continue to focus on is: how do we have our team members really have a line of sight into why this work matters?" said Downing.
Where is the sweet spot?
There's a clear connection between the daily projects a worker interacts with and how satisfied they feel in a job. Projects can also shape a person's long-term career path.
"Assignments are incredibly important to a person's career growth and happiness," said Joyce Brocaglia, founder and CEO at executive search firm Alta Associates.
And it may seem self-explanatory, but retaining talent as they develop and grow is good for business. After all, talent is typically the biggest investment a company makes, said Ward.
"If not carefully managed, it's really easy for people to work on stuff that doesn't make much business impact," said Ward.
"The key thing we really try to continue to focus on is: how do we have our team members really have a line of sight into why this work matters?"
VP and CIO at Principal Financial Group
To find the sweet spot — where business needs are met and employees are happy — there needs to be an ongoing conversation between managers and workers, Downing said.
The numbers back up this strategy: Employers acting on employee feedback on a regular basis were 11 times more likely to have high levels of retention compared to employers that fail to act on that feedback, a study from Perceptyx found.
In Shive's perspective, there's peril in letting one-on-one check-ins become simply a technical review of projects in progress.
“[Managers should] listen to what they're most interested in talking about — both technically and personally,” he said.
What can executives do?
One tool that can help determine whether employees feel connected to their work is data analytics, said Adam Glaser, SVP of Engineering at Appian.
"The first step in understanding how to retain talent is knowing how talent is doing," said Glaser.
Training is next. If there's a mismatch between the tasks an employee is assigned to do and their skills, training in new areas with high-demand inside the company can help align company goals with employee satisfaction.
At Principal Financial Group, 1,700 employees have gone through AWS training in the last eight months, according to Downing. "We've seen over a 375% increase in AWS certifications from the previous year."
Despite technology leaders' best efforts, workers will still quit. The demand for talent is just too high. Switching to a proactive rather than reactive approach is key, according to Glaser.
"It's too late to catch employees once they've already decided that the next right step for them is into another organization," Glaser said. "We've done a couple of different things to try and invert that model."
While not officially referred to as "stay" interviews, the concept is the opposite of an exit interview. Leadership at Appian checks in on existing staff regarding specific questions about what they're excited about, what they're doing and what they would like to be doing instead. But companies need to be willing to make changes to their assignments.
"Assignments are incredibly important to a person's career growth and happiness."
Founder and CEO at executive search firm Alta Associates
At SADA, a resource management practice helps the company understand where skills are going and how to ensure people are working on engaging projects, according to Ward.
"It's kind of like human resources but it's more about the day-to-day blocking and tackling of which skills are required for which projects in which sequence, to be able to get the maximum effect not only for our internal stuff, but certainly for the projects we take on for the customers," Ward said.
And with workers seduced by higher compensation elsewhere, the onus is on executives to connect workers with a path toward growth.
"That sets all of us up to operate efficiently," Wards said. "Even as new staff come in all the time and as a few staff [members] find their next best thing."
Illustration: Christina Lee for Industry Dive