The Man in the Middle

By Patrick Gray

(Back to article)

For an organization that prides itself in tracking and managing data, most IT departments are sorely lacking in perhaps the most critical datum for success: a quantitative evaluation of the group’s people.

Technology is often a game of numbers. From providing greater services with less expensive hardware and applications, to managing costs and ROI at a detailed level, tracking each minute and dollar spent on a project. Despite this numerical savvy, IT misses the boat when letting employees know exactly where they stand.

A wise CIO once told me that there is only one person in the middle of any bell curve. Every other person on the curve falls either ahead or behind that one person in the middle. This axiom seems painfully obvious, yet if you look at the employee evaluations completed by most corporations, and within IT in particular, they seem to follow an 80/20 rule: 80% of the employees are in the middle!

In most IT organizations that attempt to isolate themselves from the rest of the corporation, building walls between IT and “the business”, this presents a particularly acute quandary for employees. Advancement potential suddenly becomes amazingly narrow: you’re either a line employee, middle manager or the CIO (or one of his or her lieutenants). Narrow advancement opportunities sap morale in the ongoing battle for talent, with the traditional evaluation process serving as a knockout blow, turning low morale into a case of acute productivity loss.

It may be human nature not to want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Or tell a mediocre employee that they are mediocre, rather than showering them with empty platitudes so the evaluator and the evaluated can both remain comfortable and avoid criticism or acknowledging failing. This contributes to the urge to rank whole swaths of people as “good enough” in some notion of playground-style fairness, yet in the zeal to be fair you damage the employees you should be most interested in retaining and developing.

Ask most CIOs what kind of employees they want, and you will hear words like entrepreneurial, competitive, self-starter, independent, etc. If you are lucky enough to land someone with all these attributes, the absolute worst thing you can do is put them into an environment where “everyone’s a winner”, which directly translates to “management does not respect you enough to acknowledge your superior effort.”

Make no mistake that the veneer of fairness will instantly be seen through by a high-performer, and interpreted as a slight; damping future efforts by the high-performer. So how can you inspire and retain these high performers? Evaluate fairly and provide opportunity.

Truly Fair Evaluations

An evaluation that is truly fair accomplishes several things:

  • It seeks to provide an honest assessment of each employee’s performance, and relates that performance to peers;
  • It provides recognition of achievements;
  • Rewards the top performers, and;
  • Provides areas for improvement and the means to implement them.

    While employees need not be given a hard numerical rank that delineates where they stand in absolute terms, high-performers should obviously be rewarded more than low-performers. Many organizations make the mistake of showering the highest performers with platitudes: “Times are tight” or “There’s a hiring freeze” are vapid excuses seen by the best employees as a cop out.

  • Even more dangerous is the fact that most high-performers know exactly what they are worth, either through communicating with their peers or tentatively dipping their toe in the job market. If times are truly tight or there is in fact a hiring freeze, would it not make sense to hold onto your top performers all the more tightly, while providing incentives for the lowest performers to improve or seek employment elsewhere?

    Outsourcing Your Core Competencies

    Many CIOs balk at outsourcing their core competencies, whether it is an ERP implementation or maintaining critical infrastructure, yet they routinely outsource one of the most integral functions of their business unit without a second thought, passing on the “people process” to HR. Human Resource gets an undeserved bad rap, and ends up being the scapegoat for CIOs who do not want to manage the people process within their IT organization.

    HR can be an invaluable resource, providing expert knowledge of HR issues and the right tools to deliver a CIO’s vision of how his or her personnel should be evaluated and rewarded, but HR should not set the IT organization’s strategy for how it manages its people. IT is an extremely knowledge-intensive business function, making hiring and retaining the right people all the more critical, and not a function that can be dropped in HR’s lap with an expectation recruiting and retaining the right people.

    With IT so heavily reliant on people, it is amazing that we spend countless hours studying the latest compliance initiatives, or debating the merits of the methodology du jour rather than taking a long hard look at how we hire and retain IT staff.

    While dealing with machines is far easier than dealing with people—they do not cry, demand undeserved raises, get sick or ask for the impossible—there is nary a leader who cited the machines or methods they worked with as the cornerstone of what made them successful. Rather, a truly excellent leader stands out due to the people that surround and follow him or her. Focus on this most important asset, and organizational excellence will follow.

    Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, located in Harrison, NY. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services. Past clients include Gillette, Pitney Bowes, OfficeMax and several other Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.