Too Little Staff? Too Little Skills?

I think it is fair to say that every company has been hurt by the economy over the last several years.  Many have reduced the sizes of their staff.  Some maybe too far.  Others have cut back on expenses by eliminating things like training to conserve dollars rather than cut staff.  But now that the economy appears to be turning around (afterall, didn’t the DOW break 13,000 the other day?), you may be thinking about what your company should be doing to take advantage the upturn.  Maybe you think you don’t have enough staff to do all of the projects you want to take on to ride the wave of the upturn.  Perhaps the projects you want to do require new skills that your staff just does not have.  Maybe you think your staff is too small and the ones who are left don’t have skills you need? So what do you do?

I know some managers who will tell you that the solution is to bring in consultants to get the job done, to handle the tasks that require skills that your current staff does not have.  Maybe those consultants can bring one or two of your current staff in near the end of project so they can take over future maintenance tasks.  But what these managers are really saying is that they don’t have the faith in their existing staff to handle the project from the start.

Wow!  If you were an employee under that manager who may want to learn new things and take on interesting challenges that can make a difference, would you be satisfied?  Do you want to just be a clean-up player on the team while someone from the outside gets to come in get the big hits, earn big bucks and then walk out and leave you with the fun and exciting maintenance tasks?  We have a saying when management suggests this.  That saying is, “We don’t want to be the foster parents of every orphaned application whose parent took the money and ran.”

But seriously, if you have team members who show potential, they will leave you in a heartbeat as the economy improves and other organizations start competing for good talent.  So what do you do now?

First you have to admit that there is no magic solution.  However, there are some things that you can do to bring out the best in your staff but it will take some work on your part.  Start by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your staff.  Then look at your current and upcoming projects and match up your team’s strengths with your project needs.  The matches don’t have to be perfect.  Nothing ever is.  In fact, if there is room for your staff to stretch, learn new skills and challenge them to grow professionally and maybe personally, you may have a happy staff member, and you know what that means?  Loyalty.

What about current staff members who don’t quite meet your expectations?  If you remember a few weeks ago I mentioned that an important consideration in hiring a new employee is how they feel about learning something new.  If you have an employee who is willing to learn new things, now is the time to get them some training in the skills you think you are going to need.  Then turn them loose with some training and some simple but useful projects to let them gain the skills to later tackle the big projects you know are going to be coming.  I know some people think that you should toss people into the big tough projects right from the get go because if they succeed there, they can succeed everywhere.  That may be true for a small percentage of truly exceptional staff.  But you can achieve a lot more success with more people if you help to develop staff members that show potential and willingness to learn.

What about the rest?  Sometimes there is no alternative than to be honest with someone if their skills just don’t fit your needs and you really don’t think there is a way to use their skills in some other areas and they may be unwilling to learn new skills.  Sometimes you can still salvage the situation, but often they may just be happier somewhere else where their skills are needed and will someday thank you for helping them admit that to themselves.

The bottom line is there is never a way to guarantee that your best employees will not leave.  In any case, now is a great time to evaluate where you are and where you want to go.  One last point.  I don’t buy for a minute that you should not spend money training your staff with new skills because they will just take those skills to another company and you will get no return on that investment.  Whether you train your staff or not, they could leave.  Whether they get the ‘cool’ projects or just maintenance, they may leave.  A lot of things are outside of your control.  Many management consultants say that employees don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses.  You don’t have to be their best friend, but you have to show them that you really care about their career development.  Just because you cannot guarantee their loyalty, however, is never a good reason for not trying to do everything you can do to attract and keep the best talent by doing all you can to show that their contributions are valuable.  And even if they do leave eventually, you will hopefully have gotten some good work out of them while they were around.  Isn’t that better than the alternative?


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