January 2008

The human in human-machine interface

People are your greatest asset-and often, your only asset

Fast Forward

  • Today, it is easy for employers and employees to view each other as commodities.
  • If feeling unappreciated, neglected, underutilized, or threatened, employees depart.
  • The problems surface when they sit across from you discussing why they are resigning.
By Scott Sommer 

The world is a much different place today than it was 25 years ago. 

When this engineer began his professional career in 1981, the personal computer has just arrived on the scene. There were no flexible working hours or job sharing. Telecommuting was unheard of. Outsourcing was not feasible. 

Designs were on paper, typed, and drafted by hand. Nevertheless, we built things and built them well. We constructed plants and outfitted them with instruments put them through start-up.

We coveted our jobs and worked hard to maintain them. Corporations were the best places to work because they had all of the money and resources to make a young engineer's career grow and expand. Training was paid for and mandatory. Atten-dance on the job every day, at starting time, and without excuse, was expected. Vacations were in one-week blocks, at a minimum. Promotions were prizes for which there was no equal.

It was easy for corporations to hire and retain the best people. There were not the choices that exist today. The employee had a feeling of lifetime employment, which came at the expense of loyalty and trust to the employer. Companies were not democracies, but they were "family." 

Remember Ross Perot funding and carrying out a successful, private mission to Iran to rescue two hostages who were employees of his company? That was the ultimate in mutual loyalty that existed between company and employee, which was a hallmark of the era, which ended not too long ago.

With the advent of personal computers, cheap long-distance air travel, and telecommunications advances, it has become much easier for employers and employees to view each other as commodities. The fierce loyalties and trust that existed between corporations and employees no longer exists. 

Small, efficient, privately held companies have risen in number and power, giving entrepreneurs the same rewards once held for a chosen few corporate executives. Cheap labor overseas and a global commodities market have forced companies to expand their horizons and to challenge long-held business models.

However, one thing has not changed, especially in service-related industries like Systems Integration. People are your greatest asset, and in most cases, your only asset. 

From my experience, there are "Ten Keys" to successfully staffing and maintaining a service oriented organization. However, they could apply to any organization or business type. They should take on your organization's style and personality.

Get acquisition mentality

Employees come and go for various reasons. For one employee, a spouse may be transfer to a distant city. A daily commute is too much for another. Another may retire. For others, a "better opportunity" comes along. It is a just fact of business. 

How the organization reacts to this reality varies from company to company. Does your company wait for an employee to resign before kicking the recruiting efforts into high gear? Are you reacting to the news that someone is leaving, or are you pro-actively looking for talent continuously?

Having a "Talent Acquisition" mentality involves planning and foresight. It gets the owners and employees in the frame of mind that "we are always looking for talented engineers and programmers" to fill future needs. That's right, future needs. 

Getting the organization on the lookout for talent and having that "Talent Acquisition" mentality can lead to filling unsuspected vacancies with quality, talented individuals when the need arises, rather than with a "warm body" who just happened to be available when the opening occurred.

See the vision, the plan

Do you have a plan to grow? Or do you just a plan to survive? Or, perhaps, you have no plan at all. Plans require thought, foresight, and a will to execute them. The only way your company can grow is to hire and utilize the right people. 

Remember, your employees are probably your only asset. If you want to increase the assets reflected on the bottom line, you will have to increase your staff. Increasing staff in a smart way requires diligent planning.

Planning is more than stating, "We want to double our billing revenue in the next two years." That is a goal, not a plan. Planning says, "In order to double our billing revenue in the next two years, we need to hire three experienced Project Managers, five mid-level programmers, and four entry-level  college graduates." 

Even that is not a complete plan, but it is a start. In what se-quence do you hire these individuals? What training will they need? What types of projects will they work on? All of these need to be considered in your plan.

When employees see there is a structured plan for growth and a way for them to grow and develop within that plan, they are much more likely to support the company vision and want to remain a part of it. This vision sometimes is the key to retaining your top employees.

Be an "Employer of Choice"

Even with the best plans in place and a mentality that has your organization "trolling for talent" constantly, there is no guarantee the best talent will be attracted to your company. Therefore, you need to find a way to become an "Employer of Choice."

Recently, Roger Clemens returned to the New York Yankees. He is one of the top talents in baseball who wanted to play for one of only three teams. He had a list of his "employers of choice."

Your organization can enjoy the same reputation. Be an "Employer of Choice." Get to the point where people want to work for you and where top talent comes, asking to work.

So how does one become an "Employer of Choice?" The author believes it takes the planning and vision described previously, mixed with a dose of hard work and ethical business practices, with a dash of luck, and a pinch of good marketing. 

Hiring the right people to begin with coupled with a sound vision and plan for the future will probably generate all the enthusiasm and positive word-of-mouth you will need to get the word out that you are an "Employer of Choice." 

An organization must earn and build a good reputation. One cannot merely purchase a rep.

Don't wait to hire talent

Your firm always has at least one job opening. That opening is for the person with top talent and skills that would enhance your organization. It does not matter if there is work available at the moment. It only matters that you have hired the top talent. 

If you have the best people, the work will come. If it does not, then perhaps an underperforming resource should go. In either case, your organization benefits from the move.

Hire talent into your organization to make your organization better, not to fill an "open" position because someone left. That takes no planning and exhibits no vision. That is purely reactionary and is a hallmark of a mediocre company. 

How many teams would have jumped at the chance to hire Roger Clemens, even if it meant sending someone to the minors? Most likely, all of them. Why? It is because top talent improves your organization, regardless of the present circumstance of the company.

Retaining that top talent

The previous four items focused on locating, attracting, and hiring the right talent. The final six of the "Ten Keys" will focus on retaining that top talent, and just as importantly, developing all of your talent into "top talent."

Development of talent is not synonymous with training. Training is an important component of development, but development requires much more. Many organizations do not take development beyond training, and as a result, cannot figure out why after investing so much time and money in training, someone would still want to leave for another opportunity. 

The answer is simple: Training gives a person a marketable skill, no matter for which organization he or she works. Development, on the other hand, is not so portable. Development is the process of interweaving a resource's talents, knowledge, and skills into the fabric of the organization. It encompasses three important areas in the employee's professional life: training, opportunity, and stretching.

Development should also stretch the capabilities of your talent. You may have a top engineer who is second to none in programming a certain application. The temptation is to "pigeonhole" that employee, so that whenever a project comes along that requires that application, he, or she get that assignment. Eventually, this resource will get bored and want to grow beyond that application. Don't wait for that resource to reach that point, since it usually comes to light as they sit across from you discussing why they are resigning. Stretch your talent; assign a resource to them who they can develop into someone who can take their place. Assign this resource, in turn, to someone else to learn a new application or skill. By using this push and pull of resources, each person is constantly growing and developing. There is no stagnation, and with luck, no turnover in the organization related to boredom or burnout. 

Make mentoring your key

Twenty-five years ago, older engineers helped younger engineers grow and develop. Oftentimes, a more experienced engineer took a younger engineer "under the wing" and acted as a mentor and teacher. By in large, this practice has become less prevalent, due in part to technology and telecommunications. Technology has made personal guidance and development less important to many firms. "On-line" help has reduced the need for personal instruction. Rapid, inexpensive communications has opened the door for younger engineers to obtain guidance from a variety of sources, and has made mentoring "time consuming" and in many cases, more expensive.

However, even with the advances in technology and the ready access to a variety of help, there is no better way to develop younger engineers than through mentoring. There absolutely is no better way to help retain younger engineers than through a planned, well-executed mentoring process.

Even with gadgets, computers, and cell phones, there is no substitute for "the human touch." The attention, patience, and guidance given by an experienced resource to a less-experienced resource are invaluable. This attention can often be the key to making a marginal employee a very productive one. It can also be the key to retaining a resource who may feel they have outgrown the organization.

Give credit where credit due

Mentoring opens the door for one of the most powerful tools for retaining your best employees. It is vital that an employee feels like they are appreciated and that the job they are doing is not only recognized by management, but also valued by management. This does not usually mean valued in a monetary sense, but in giving a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

The author works for a company that recognizes achievement on a monthly basis with an award of recognition based on nominations by fellow employees. Nearly every month, the author has then opportunity to make a nomination of someone who has made a substantial or extraordinary contribution to the team or a project. Although there is a small monetary award involved (about one hour's pay), the employees recognized find far greater value in the exposure of their accomplishment to management and their fellow employees. It is a validation that the time they put in and the extra push at the end of the project was noticed and valued. It gives them a feeling that the company values their contribution and does not hesitate to make it public.

The worst feeling an engineer can have, and one of the leading reasons a person begins to consider finding employment elsewhere, is the feeling they are not appreciated. The best thing a company can do is give credit where credit is due-to the employees who are doing the work. 

Putting in the mix, stir it up

When hiring employees or forming project teams, it is a temptation to assemble a group of the most experienced resources first. When this is done, only the less-experienced resources remain, taking away flexibility from your next project. 

In addition, this can lead to resentment within the overly experienced team, since someone has to do the "tasks." There is not enough "fun stuff" to go around. Therefore, it is vital to maintain a mixture of talents, strengths, and experience levels throughout the organization and on each project team.

Less-experienced resources will learn from more experienced ones. A team of "green horns" will not learn as quickly or be as responsive to new experiences as they would if placed onto separate teams under the tutelage of more experienced engineers. 

Similarly, more experienced engineers will not grow professionally if their responsibilities are watered-down by placing too much experience on one project team. A mix is healthy. It is also vital for the mental and professional health of the organization.

Healthy life-work balance

In some of these "Ten Keys," we discussed technology advances in both positive and negative veins. One of the biggest negatives of technology has been to make people more mobile, more accessible, and more productive. Although each of these three results is not bad in and of itself, the three together can be dangerous to the organization. In many organizations, there is an expectation of being mobile (able to travel on a moment's notice), of being accessible (24-hours per day), and of being more productive (can work from whatever location the employee is in).

While a type-A personality might find this all to be a benefit to impressing management with their 24-hour workday, it has, in the end, a very detrimental effect on the employee, especially your best employees. Unless your employees are single, non-social drones, they have a life outside of work. The employer needs to not only recognize this, but also realize an employee's mental and physical health can depend on how they deal with the balance between work and life.

To wit:

  • Employees have families that need their attention as much as their work assignment. Make sure they are home to eat dinner with their families.
  • Pay employees for every hour worked, no exceptions.
  • Travel is hard on the body and mind. Minimize it. When this is not possible, make it bearable. Red-eye flights or flights with three connections are not bearable.
  • Respect an employee's time off. Don't "call them in" for any reason. It can wait until Monday.
  • Be flexible with working hours. Give a range of acceptable start times for the day. Engineers are task-driven; they will put the hours in to get the job done.
  • If five engineers are executing a project and all are working 60-hour weeks, you are a poor planner and a poor manager. You should have had seven people on the project from the start.

When employees talk, listen!

When an employee has an idea, a complaint, or a suggestion, it is always best to listen. Often, the employee will be trying to convey a problem, irritation, or stressor. Left unattended or unanswered, these items can often lead to the employee's exit. 

Just listening and acting on an issue raised by an employee can often soothe the problem or stressor in his or her mind. At the least, it may open our eyes to a problem that needs to be addressed and/or rectified in the organization.

Some of the best ideas and suggestions come from employees. Every employee should keep their ears open for these ideas, whether it be one regarding a procedure or policy, or whether it be an alternative approach to a client issue. When an organization actively listens and acts on employees' ideas and suggestions, there is a powerful synergy that begins to emerge. 

Employees feel their input is being valued, and employers benefit from the ideas they had not been able to think of themselves. It is a double win for the organization, but it cannot happen unless the employer actively listens.

Employee turnover is costly. The process of recruiting and hiring is time consuming. 

These "Ten Keys" are applicable to any organization or business type. 

A specific firm's plan for implementation should take on that firm's personality and style. 

However, in each case, the substance of the plan will contain common traits, regardless of type of firm or style. 


Scott Sommer (scott.sommer@jacobs. com) is a PE and a CAP (ISA Certified Auto-mation Professional). He has two degrees in chemical engineering and has worked 25 years in the industrial automation and systems integration field, both as an employee and as a business owner. Sommer is currently the Automation Technology Manager at Jacobs Engineering in Philadelphia.

The "Ten Keys" to successfully staffing and maintaining a service-oriented organization are:

  1. Obtain a "talent acquisition" mentality.
  2. Develop a corporate plan and vision for growth.
  3. Market your company as an "Employer of Choice."
  4. Hire for talent, not for filling open positions.
  5. Grow your talent through focused development.
  6. Make mentoring your key to retention.
  7. Give credit where credit is due.
  8. Mix it up: Strive for a balance of experience levels, strengths, and talents.
  9. Encourage a healthy life-work balance.
  10. When employees talk, listen!