Executive tips for retaining top tech talent in a hot job market

Hospital leaders need to understand the difference between what draws employees closer and what drives them away.
By John P. Donohue
08:07 AM

The economy keeps booming and job reports signal again that unemployment is down. That’s good news, of course, but it can also make it harder to keep your best employees.

Retaining key technology subject matter experts has always been somewhat challenging. As a healthcare organization technology leader, there is constant competition against opportunities presented by large (usually for profit) corporations with deeper pockets, larger capital budgets and bleeding-edge technology challenges.

These large corporations are looking for the same skill sets that many healthcare systems rely on to architect, implement and support their technology infrastructure. If you happen to work in an urban center, these large corporations are sometimes right down the street and can lure your employees away without even having to change their bus or train stop that they use to commute to work.

Tugs and shoves
With the economy booming and unemployment down, the challenges of retaining key technology assets have only increased. So, what is a healthcare system to do?

While there are no silver bullets for retaining the key staff members that keep your infrastructure and technology portfolio humming along, there are some concepts that can be applied when you can’t maintain employee retention with compensation packages alone. I tend to think about things in terms of “tugs” and “shoves.”

Tugs draw employees closer while shoves drive your people away — understanding the difference is key to retention.

Tugs can include keeping a finger on the pulse of your employee base and what they are thinking, having an employee council that provides direct feedback, and providing the right level of support to your front line managers, particularly first time managers.

The front line manager and employee relationship is key for effective retention of your best talent and the talent you are investing in growing and improving.

Lastly, gathering brutal fact feedback in exit interviews can be very insightful. It is important to take that feedback and implement action planning for developmental improvements that you feel are worthy of incorporating into your department. 

It starts with a recruiting culture
Think about the front end of the process as the most important part. Hiring the right people to start with is crucial — you have to match employees who are well suited to roles that will keep them interested, challenged and agile to achieving professional development growth that can lead to new roles inside the department.

Recruiting top talent is never easy, but if you can start to develop a culture that will draw people to your organization, it gets much easier. Developing a destination culture takes time and effort, but it’s well worth the investment when you minimize the churn of costly employee turnover.

In our organization, we insist that the technology service line leaders interview each and every candidate. We also strive to find candidates that are “connected” to current employees, people they would feel comfortable recommending for the job. This strategy really helps when it comes to finding the right “fit” of candidates. Identifying candidates with the right “fit” for the role they are hired into has been a game changer in terms of improving retention.

Three more fundamentals: engagement, strategy, growth
Right behind fit, I focus on three other fundamentals. The first is employee engagement. We actually measure employee engagement and it has made a difference. We have seen a direct correlation between engaged employees and reduced employee turnover. Engaged employees tend to work smarter and harder and handle more complex initiatives. These employees are more positive and as such impact morale and draw more potential candidates. They are also less likely to leave an organization. By measuring engagement, you can spot trends, predict turnover and maybe even identify managers that need support and additional training.

The second fundamental is tying the work of the technology subject matter expert to the strategic plan and the mission of the organization. It’s often not evident on the surface how critical their work is to delivering patient care. By better establishing this connection, the technology subject matter experts often feel that their work is more meaningful.

The third is around building opportunities for growth. While this is easier in larger healthcare systems, ensuring that your top technology talent has room for growth is key to retaining them over time. Finding ways to introduce them to innovation projects or providing stretch assignments outside of their sweet spots can really help to make them feel like they are growing as professionals – which, in turn, continues to benefit the organization in new ways.

Aside from those focus points, there are some age-old retention fundamentals that you can’t ignore if you are building a strong destination organization. I think it’s important to recognize individuals and teams by their achievements, particularly on the technology side of things. Celebrating the successes and making sure people are rewarded with recognition enhances both the team and department’s profile as a high achiever. Many organizations view the technology as plumbing and large projects and strong contributors are not noticed. We have also found that strengthening the social side of the equation is very important for doling out good recognition. We have a formal social committee which has really helped to build relationships and friendships that create another organizational tug.  

Additionally, you have to have a commitment to training your technology staff. Most people view being current almost as important as being compensated in their paycheck. This training, when combined with challenging work and projects pays dividends to the organization.

I also think a formal mentoring program is instrumental to improving retention. I look for our senior technology subject matter experts to serve as technology mentors to the junior staff. This investment has also paid dividends in terms of building relationships, developing the next generation of technology leaders and driving down turnover.

Final piece of advice
Employee turnover is very costly. Losing your top tech talent is that much more painful. My advice: Make sure to measure and manage retention closely.

At my organization, leaders are accountable for turnover in their towers and are incented for maintaining strong retention — and there’s good reason for that precedent.

Putting the time and energy into retention of key technical talent far outweighs the investment it takes to recruit and ramp up replacement technologists.

John Donohue is Associate Vice President – Enterprise Infrastructure Services of Penn Medicine.

Focus on The Business of Healthcare

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