How to Create an Overworked, Underpaid—but Fully Engaged—IT Workforce (Pt1: A Tale of Two IT Leaders)

PROductivityBoost_HowToDevelopWe can all agree the IT professionals on your team deserve to be highly compensated and provided with a manageable amount of fascinating work that will give them the opportunity to contribute their fullest talents without having to put in more than the standard 40 hours a week on the clock.

That being said…

As an IT leader, you don’t always have enough resources, enough fascinating work, or enough staff to create optimal conditions for your team. When the business begins tightening its belt, IT is often the first department to feel the pinch. And when your IT department gets squeezed, you will need to manage your team through reduced headcount, long hours, consolidated positions, a reduction in bonuses, and pay below fair market value for their contribution.

These lean times are inevitable. Every IT leader—at least once in her career—will experience these conditions.

But not every IT leader responds the same way to these conditions, and the IT leader who learns how to not merely survive—but thrive—during lean times sets herself up for a career resilient to the larger economic forces moving through her organization.

A Tale of Two IT Leaders

Bob and Jane are both mid-level IT leaders who work for a large organization with a new CEO. This new CEO is the slash-and-burn type. Lots of mandates for budget reductions, and the IT department finds itself forced to cut a substantial volume of its workforce without reducing functionality. Many of the upcoming projects everyone was excited about have also been eliminated. In short—things look bleak.

Faced with this situation, Bob does what any average IT leader would do—he tells his remaining team members to put their heads down and grind forward until things get better.

This approach seems sensible. It’s not like Bob can to barge into the new budget-slashing CEO’s office and demand extra resources. Even a highly influential CIO has little room to push back when the CEO says “Cut!”… and Bob is certainly not the CIO.

Given this realistic picture of his standing in the organization, it’s hard to fault Bob for just trying to shuttle his team through this ordeal without demotivating or outright losing too many of his top people.

But just because you can’t fault Bob for his “heads down” approach, that doesn’t mean he’s tackling these lean times optimally.

After all, Jane also is not the CIO, and she also doesn’t wield significant influence in the organization, but she’s approaching these lean times very differently than Bob. She understands the realities of constrained resources, but she looks for creative solutions to ensure her team remains as engaged as possible with the work they have in front of them. She also finds low-to-no-cost ways to keep her people feeling valued for their contribution without substantial financial rewards. Staying on this path, Jane has a good chance of keeping all of her people fully engaged throughout this ordeal.

Why Will Jane Thrive During these Lean Times,

While Bob Will Just (Hopefully) Survive Them?

One factor is Jane’s ambition. The minute she resolved to make the most of hard times was the minute she started brainstorming creative solutions to the problems in front of her. Sometimes, simply asking the right questions—instead of sitting down and accepting the doom-and-gloom—is enough to find ways to upgrade a bad situation into a good situation.

But on top of holding ambition, Jane also knows a few things about leading people that Bob doesn’t realize:

Jane knows her team members don’t need to be fascinated by their assignments to be happy with their work, and that an increased workload of boring-but-necessary assignments can feel engaging when it’s assigned—and communicated—the right way.

Jane also knows that bonuses and raises are not primary motivators for the IT pros under her, and the feelings of being valued that these big compensation bumps offer can be produced in non-financial ways that speak more directly to what IT pros really desire.

These two mindset shifts—fully absorbed and tactically applied—can make all the difference. Holding them close, Jane realized that lean times aren’t an excuse to just skate by with fingers crossed, but lean times offer the opportunity to refocus on the fundamentals of IT leadership and team management.

Next week, we’ll dive into the first mindset shift and set of tactics ambitious IT leaders like Jane deploy during lean times to keep work engaging when exciting projects are off the table. But for today you have one simple assignment that will remind you that lean times don’t always have to be hard times. Ask yourself:

“Was there a time in my entire working career when I felt fully engaged and fully valued when I was working a bit too much, and getting paid a bit too little?”

Spend a couple minutes thinking about why you felt engaged and valued during this resource-scare situation, and write down what made those lean times feel rich.

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