Feature Story

5 Strategies for Finding and Retaining Talent

How CIOs are bridging the IT talent gap by finding, developing, and keeping talent that will transform their companies

CEOs are waking up to the fact that they need digital transformation,” said Martha Heller of Heller Search Associates, a technology talent sourcing firm.

That puts pressure on the entire organization — to innovate and drive exciting new customer experiences.

Martha Heller Martha Heller of Heller Search Associates

Especially IT.

The old image of IT — stereotypical nerds locked in a basement data center, knee-deep in fiber cable — is a thing of the past. Today’s IT is expected to step out of the server shadows, and spearhead those new experiences while bridging the gap between technology and business.

But that demands a new kind of IT talent.

“Talent, to me, is the No. 1 issue that IT leaders deal with today,” said Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst,  ZK Research.

All organizations will need to address talent shortages, especially as modern and automated infrastructures begin to redefine IT’s role.

Until those modernized infrastructures become more common, Kerravala estimates that IT staffs will continue to spend more than 80 percent of their budgets simply “keeping the lights on.”

That remains critical, but it doesn’t create the breeding ground for innovative, business-leaning technology talent that organizations need.

“Most of us have more of an operational perspective of the world,” said Niel Nickolaisen, CTO of O.C. Tanner. “We’re about bits and bytes, not about business models, and not about business transformation. I think that’s the opportunity we have. I just think in order to seize that opportunity we’re going to have to be different from what we are today.”

One solution is to replace the CIO. But Heller believes that only goes so far.

“That new CIO,” she added, “comes on board and says, ‘Wow I’ve got a team that’s never learned agile development. They don’t know anything about dev-ops. They don’t know about business engagement. I need a new IT team.’ This is happening across every industry. So, the demand far outstrips the supply.”

Given such odds, what can IT leaders do? The following are five ways to find, develop, and keep the talent for driving innovation and delivering business value:

1. Build It (an Innovative Culture) — and They Will Come

It all starts with culture.

“You can put the culture of innovation on a slide or put it on paper,” said Guillermo Diaz, senior vice president and CIO at Cisco. “But at the end of the day you have to inspire people. And you have to give them skills for this digital transformation.”

And it not just skills. Most employees want to impact the organization in big ways. So, one way to attract talent is with a challenging, collaborative work environment.

Jeff Eckard of IHG

Jeff Eckard, VP of Americas Technology for InterContinental Hotels Group

Jeff Eckard, Vice President of Americas Technology at InterContinental Hotels Group, credits his leadership team with embracing technology that transforms the experience for hotel guests. That includes investing in an agile, fast, and future-proof network. And providing great opportunities for him to put IT front and center.

“We’ve got a number of these different emerging skill sets in the technology shops,” Eckard said, “because of the changing role technology’s playing for our business. Which leads to, we’re getting better talent, people are better engaged, more productive because of how we’re more closely aligned with our business.”

Guy Brassard, CIO of Southwire, an older manufacturer of cables and wire, also credits his leadership team with driving an innovative culture. While enabling him to create a diverse IT team, with some players entering from the business side.

“We don’t suffer from having any issues in getting the talent we need, and the people to apply in positions,” Brassard said, adding, “I’ve got two of them that are from the business. One of them was a plant manager, the other one was responsible for sales in one of the regions in Europe. It’s so much richer. And I have IT folks that actually got promoted last year, and are taking on business positions.”

Heller applauds that approach, but believes it is rare and difficult to scale. “These blended executives with one foot in IT, one foot in the business,” she warned, “until more companies start developing those people through a business-outcomes culture in IT, then those skills won’t be plentiful on the market.”

2. Reinvent the Talent You Have

Brassard’s strategy illustrates how the right talent may be staring you in the face. You just need to reinvent it.

By rotating business people into IT and IT people into the business side, Brassard gains team members with an understanding of changing customer needs.

Nickolaisen keeps his team fresh by encouraging constant experimentation, especially with new technologies like AI and machine learning. That can include free trials with technology vendors or exploring models in university data centers.

“I allocate a portion of their time to just play,” he said, “A lot of the vendors provide sandbox environments that cost nothing, because they want you to play with their technology so you’ll fall in love and end up buying it. Let’s identify the vendors that we think are probably the leaders, and let’s start to play with it.”

The result? An IT team that is ready to drive innovation for his company.

“Along the way,” he continued, “we built up this internal competency and capability. So, if three years ago I was using student projects at universities, and prizes at user-group contests, we’d proven the business value of advanced analytics, which has allowed me then to invest in it in my own budget. Now I’ve got people on staff that can do it full time.”

Analytics are among a host of new skills in which IT should become proficient. “I think data sciences, analytics, programming skills, automation, orchestration,” Kerravala added. “Those are the new network skills for the next decade.”

3. Go Back to School

Technology is changing so fast that even recent graduates from top engineering schools can get left behind.

“Frankly,” stressed Kerravala, “it’s important for engineers to upscale their own talent and change what they’re doing, because a lot of what they’re doing is going to go away.”

Some companies are creating their own initiatives to help IT teams expand skills sets.

Cisco offers programs in cloud, security, and data science, all of which take a visual, user-friendly approach to learning. As Diaz mentioned before, it’s not just about putting everything down on paper or in a file to read. It’s about creating a culture that encourages learning.

“Before we had 40 PowerPoints,” Diaz said. “But seeing and showing is what gets people inspired.”

Besides offering in-house programs, some organizations use online courses from platforms like Coursera and Udacity to boost technology or business skills — whether the impetus comes from individual IT workers or their leaders.

“Many companies send requests to us,” said Richard Wong of Coursera. “They say, ‘Hey, this company, this set of people, they have some skills but it’s not good enough for the future of our business.’”

Some sign up for what Wong calls “high-demand specialization” courses. “Those are the types of IT skills,” Wong said, “like machine learning, cybersecurity, data analytics, data science.”

Many others in IT seek to improve their business and leadership acumen.

“Even if you’re an IT worker,” Wong continued, “there are many cases in which you need to interact with cross-functional partners in order to deliver the business’ goal. And many of these trainings on our platform can help them to acquire the skills to be more effective in an organization.”

4. Find Great Partners (or Buy Them)

Digital transformation is rarely a solo act, and most organizations will never have all the talent they need. For most, an ecosystem of partners is critical. Especially as cybersecurity, AI, blockchain and other technologies ramp up the complexity.

IT leaders need to forge those partner relationships, as they integrate outside thinking with both IT and the business side.

Brassard speaks of managing these internal and external stakeholders especially as Southwire continues to extend its reach beyond North America.

“Imagine us around a table,” he said. “I’ve got partners that are specialists, who have international reach, which we need. I’ve got IT folks that understand extremely well the legacy system, but understand what the talent gaps are. The third party is the business people, who know what they want out of the system. So, all three parties understand what each other can bring to the table.”

So-called “tech-quisitions” take the partner relationship one step further, especially for larger enterprises. But technology leaders must guide the process.

“You may just decide,” said Heller, “let’s buy a company with an AI solution that we like. It’s a high-level CTO who can be out in the market looking for who are the cool companies that are providing AI solutions. Which one meshes best with our product set or manufacturing needs, and let’s just go ahead and buy that company.”

5. Embrace a Challenging — but Fun — Future

IT may be rocked by technology and culture changes. But that makes for an exciting time, despite the challenges.

“I am a former CIO myself and I think to myself this would be a very difficult era to work in,” Kerravala said. “But it would also be very fun.”

He believes the CIO should challenge the status quo. Then he thinks they need to look at their business processes, work with the business leaders in a partnership, and then see if there is a better way to do things.

The opportunities are there like never before. And IT teams can step up to a more rewarding future in which they can impact the organization in all-new ways.

“For many years,” Eckard said, “the technology teams thought they were working on the plumbing, working on the core foundational items. But now our IT staff and our IT teams really feel like they can make a difference on the frontlines for all those different stakeholders.”

In the End, It’s About the Best Talent

IT talent doesn’t just walk through the front door. In such a competitive, disruptive marketplace, your organization has to be the one that draws — and cultivates — the best talent.

“It is as competitive for talent as it is for market share,” Heller said. “Are you putting the same effort into your talent acquisition capabilities as your sales and marketing are into their customer acquisition capabilities? I bet you’re not. You’re in the business of bringing in good talent. Are you treating that like a business, or is it just an afterthought?”