Hard-earned advice for nurturing high-performing IT teams

We talk a lot in the IT press about maximizing the benefits of software, hardware, and emerging technologies to create business value. What we don’t spend enough time on is discussing how we can maximize the value of our most precious resource: our people.

The care and retention of IT staff should be viewed as the most pressing job of IT management. AI may someday eliminate the IT department, but as Mark Twain once quipped, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” There will always be a need for technologists to sort through and address the continuing need of companies to use the best technology available to achieve the best strategic results.

The key to maintaining high-performing IT teams is to motivate them through challenging and interesting work — and, at the same time, assure they are rewarded and recognized for their achievements. The same can be said of any department’s people, but IT presents unique challenges when it comes to motivation and recognition.

What makes the IT pro tick

We IT professionals typically like to work alone on projects, free of “helicopter” management — i.e., bosses that hover over us as we work. We also aren’t fans of delegation, believing instead that we can do it faster and better ourselves. We tend to be very logical and precise and often view the world in black-and-white terms — the bit is either on or off. Corporate politics is abhorred and nuance can be lost. “Spell it out” is a common criticism running through our heads. We often have a reputation for not being the best communicators.

And yet, we want to be recognized for our work and achievements. We want to embark on new challenges. Just because we may be the only ones who understand a certain technology doesn’t mean we want to be left in the same spot for years. We want trustworthy managers who know what it’s like to harness technology to create new solutions. And when it comes to technology, we love the new. 

Getting the most out of us means assuring we are fulfilled by our jobs, that we learn new things and feel a sense of progression. At the same time, some of us must be developed to step into management roles oftentimes outside our comfort zone. 

Here are some ideas to help IT leaders ensure they get the most from — and give the most to — their staff.

Flexible policies, up-to-date tech

IT departments should endorse and implement full flexibilty as to where IT staff can choose to work. Our job is very detailed and is chiefly done on a computer. While there is a need for some collaboration, IT staff should be able to leverage technology to achieve this requirement, whether it is videoconference meetings, virtual whiteboards, or online collaboration tools up to and including virtual reality (VR), which will continue to get better and more user friendly. We should also be able to use monitoring technology to ensure that staff are working effectively without being intrusive. This also enables us to hire people worldwide based on the skills needed.


Today’s IT is a business-critical organization that develops systems to facilitate the corporate strategic plan. And yet too often IT is viewed as a support function whose staff remain unknown to the majority of the company. When I was a CIO, our company had awards dinners for the sales staff, the distribution staff, and the merchandising staff. So I implemented an awards dinner for our senior IT staff and invited all the corporate officers to the event to present the awards. Awards included  “Best Use of New Technology,” “Best System Developed Within Budget,” and “System That Saved the Most Money.” Your IT awards could be anything, but the important thing is that your company officers should be the ones recognizing the contributions of IT personnel.


Promotion and raises are the primary way we reward the work of our IT staff. But in this technical field, it is very important to differentiate between the two. We should give monetary awards to people that do a good job. This could take the form of an annual raise or bonus for exceptional work. We should never reward work well done with a promotion unless it is a skill-level promotion, such as from systems analyst to senior systems analyst, in which the job itself is unchanged.

A promotion should be given only when a person has been able to change the job itself. 

Meaningful reviews

For most companies, even when a performance review process is in place, it leaves something to be desired. At my company, this was also the case. We offered performance reviews, but only conducted them through the employee’s direct supervisor. To help benefit career growth, we implemented a new program that required two levels of review. The initial review was still given by the direct supervisor but then another was scheduled with the boss’s boss. This second discussion was aimed at future career paths inside or outside IT and served to expose the employee to additional management levels.


Another practice that I followed when I led IT was to recognize birthdays of staff members. I had more than 200 people in my IT department, and I made my best effort to send an email to everyone on their birthday. I would try to personalize the message to comment about a project that the person was working on. The idea was that it is very easy to get lost from the human element of work, and touching base with employees in this way is important to recognizing them as humans and colleagues. It was amazing the reaction I would get. Many could not believe that the VP would take the time to do this little thing. When they would see me after the message, they would say thanks.

It doesn’t have to be a birthday note, but making an effort to be present in IT staff’s lives is important.

Ongoing training

Training for IT personnel is the lifeblood of the department. Whether it’s classroom sessions, self-study, or attendance at industry events, training is a great motivator and can be particularly noteworthy when you signal to your staff that you care about their careers and are willing to pay for the experience. When I was a CIO, I put in a twist. Whenever we paid for anyone to go to a conference, I expected a report on the sessions attended and what was learned. When appropriate, I would share some of this intelligence with our officer group to spotlight the staff member’s learning experience. 

Training sessions help upskill your staff on the latest technologies. In addition to stimulating their minds and advancing their skill sets, doing so can also set you up to replace any consultants you might have tapped to get the new tech rolling. If, after that, consultants are still needed, you can assign them the old stuff. Remember, they will do anything.

And please don’t say that training will encourage your staff to leave. If you don’t train, the poor performers may stay but the good ones will get away.


Finally, as mentioned earlier, delegation is usually not a strong suit in IT. We like to do things ourselves. But once you get into a supervisory job, you must begin to delegate. So how do you know if you are delegating properly? It’s actually easy to measure. If the questions that you are getting from a subordinate are easy for you to answer, then it either means the employee is not confident in their decision-making skills or you are not delegating enough. You should be getting only tough questions that require further thought or a change in policy. This is one of the reasons that managing is tough because your plate should only be full of tough tasks. After all, that is one of the reasons they invented single malts! And remember, trusting an employee to make decisions is a great way to motivate and recognize even if they sometimes make a mistake.

Management is a tough job especially when we are working with highly skilled IT people who are hard to find and even harder to keep. In my book, The 9 1/2 Secrets of a Great IT Department, I wrote primarily about working with other departments. But a successful IT department must motivate and recognize its own people like crazy if it is ever going to be truly great.

IT Leadership, Staff Management