I wrote weekly editorials for a boutique industry newsletter for several years, anxious for both audience and income. I learned a lot about coming up with ideas for the weekly grind, trying to be simultaneously opinionated and entertaining in a few hundred words, and not sleeping much because I was working all the time. They’re fun to read as a look back at what was important then (and often still important now).
I wrote this piece in May 2008.
The Idealistic HR Rep Is Wrong: IT Success Means Treating Your Stars Better Than Everyone Else
By Mr. HIStalk
Healthcare IT is an industry of experts. Folks with highly specific skills are the hardest to find and keep.
You know them. They’ve developed battle-hardened expertise in the quirks of a particular vendor’s product, often as technical experts (aka programmers, system analysts, or application specialists). You, some other hospital, or a vendor raised them from sapling to stout oak. Unfortunately, others covet and sometimes steal them. Losing one can kill your project or your reputation with users quickly.
Job #1 for an executive is to keep these stars. Here’s the biggest secret for doing that: don’t treat everyone equally. The idealistic, chipper HR rep is dead wrong. You keep your stars by identifying them and treating them better than everyone else, proudly and loudly.
(My motto is this: keep the top 10 percent of employees deliriously happy, the middle 80 percent comfortable, and the bottom 10 percent miserable).
Stars are like attractive women – they know it. That means having options, one of which is leaving for greener pastures. Insecure managers who try to beat down excellence by applying by-the-book principles of democratic, feel-good management in which everyone is treated alike will be left with plodding conformists. The geniuses will be long gone. Unfortunately, one genius can outperform a handful or more of plodders, especially when you’re talking about programmers, DBAs, and the like.
Most of those stars don’t want to be managers, so the promotion carrot doesn’t work. They aren’t starving, so throwing money at them won’t buy their loyalty. The best strategy is to identify that top 10 percent, then break the rules for them (who doesn’t feel special when someone breaks rules for them?)
Make them attend only that 10 percent of meetings that are important. Managers have long detuned their outrage threshold and will happily sit through time-wasting sessions where no conclusions are reached and no assignments made, but technical folks would rather be accomplishing something.
Give them whatever technical toys they need and then some. Your best analysts should have a huge monitor, a mobile device of their choosing, and whatever software they think will look cool on the shelf. These may or may not improve productivity, but they serve as a badge of honor visible to all that they’re special (that motivates others to seek stardom, too). Compare the cost to that required to find and train a replacement – it’s nothing.
Feed them. Surprise pizza or an off-campus lunch is cheap.
Put your best people in the best workspaces. Windows motivate. So do fancy chairs. Working from home on occasion is a real perk. Airless, institutional cubicles that scream interchangeable galley slave aren’t for stars. Brad Pitt doesn’t share a dressing room with the extras.
Send a note of thanks to their significant other after a long stretch of heads-down work.
Let them wear whatever they want as long as they’re not meeting with outsiders. People do their best work when they’re comfortable. Only managers wore ties as toddlers.
Respect stars, even if you can’t do the same for everyone else. Everyone, right up to the big boss, should know their background, hobbies, family members, and favorite vacation spots.
Send them off to training. It’s a badge of honor for an employer to invest in training-related travel. If the training budget is limited, spend it on the stars instead of dividing it equally.
Let them screw around on the clock with technologies you may never use. Hospital stuff is sometimes outdated, so exposure to cutting edge technologies is a motivator.
Allow them to interact with users and executives and users if they want. It’s insulting to have a middle manager boss steal the limelight when things are going great, but hide behind a closed door the rest of the time (I know because I’ve done it).
Make it clear to managers that their primary focus is to keep their stars happy and productive, which often means butting out and not trying to artificially add value. Not all managers are stars, either.
If an assignment is too trivial to make it sound crucial even by stretching the truth, give it to someone else, not a star. And if it’s critical but probably impossible, give it to a star and tell them so, feigning surprise when it gets done in a blinding flash of genius.
All of this sounds simple, but have you formally identified your stars and intentionally treated them better than the non-stars? If not, you’d better do it before someone else does.