How to hold onto your best data talent

As we come to the end of “the silly season” that July and August represent and normal service begins to resume in data teams throughout every shape and size of organisation, here, at MBN Towers, we’re bracing ourselves for the annual rush to market that a great number of data teams will take part in to ensure that the best talent are secured and in position for the beginning of next year.

Conversely, many data leaders and organisations will be feeling a little bit apprehensive over the next few months. The traditional “hunting grounds” for internal and external recruiters are businesses where attention perhaps hasn’t been properly paid to ensuring talented individuals feel wanted and, dare we say it, loved. And, if you are one of these people or businesses, and you aren’t feeling a little scared…..you should be! 

As we’ve pointed out before, it doesn’t matter how well thought out your strategies are and how cutting edge your technology is, if you lose key people your chances of succeeding are reduced – and can be damaged irreparably.

OK, you say, sounds ominous – so how do I stop that from happening? Simple, we say – read on!

Highlight your cool mission!

It doesn’t matter what industry sector you are based within – if you are in data, you are doing something cool. 

You might be building something new, making something better, changing something around or fixing something broken. Whatever it is that your data team are set up to do – it’s cool.

Get feedback from your team members regularly – allow ideas, opinions and challenges to be expressed and debated. “Hero” or highlight the work and the team. Showcase their efforts – internally and externally – to the wider data community. Build your data team’s “brand” by entering awards and other places where recognition is offered. You are doing cool stuff – let that cool stuff be seen and heard! Make it a part of everyone’s work to ensure that the great work that they are involved in is broadcast to the widest possible audience. Get creative about how you do this – forums, websites, blogs, awards, media, tech talks, social media, podcasts (we have 2 you could feature in!) anything and everything can be used to ensure that as wide a lens as possible is focused on your team.  

Wrap that mission around some purpose 

Make sure that everyone in the team knows where their individual efforts contribute directly to the purpose of the organisation. It may well be that the purpose of the organisation has been set for a very long time and at a level way above the level of your data team members – it doesn’t matter. Their work – every day of their work – is contributing to the purpose of the team and of the overall business objective. 

Ensure that, wherever possible, there is a clear line between what they do – and what the organisation is doing. Let them see that their efforts lead to outcomes. Make it obvious where the data team fits into the “big picture”. One of the most frequent reasons talented data professionals look to engineer an exit from their current role is that they are “just another tiny cog in a huge machine and their efforts are never noticed”. It’s your job, if you want to retain your best people, to make sure that what they do is a part of a bigger purpose and that their efforts are always appreciated. If you don’t, someone else certainly will.   

Provide individual career mapping

Fundamentally, there are three main “tracks” to any discipline with a data team. Whether it’s an Engineer, Scientist, Analyst or somewhere in between the three tracks are:

Sole Contributor | Manager | Commercial

  • Sole Contributors are technical specialists who get stuff done. 
  • Managers look after processes and people and are responsible for getting bigger stuff done
  • Commercial specialists work closely with the business and are experts in stakeholder management, etc.

Most teams will have a mixture of all three – and some teams (data teams in consultancies, for example) will have more of one type (Commercial) than other teams. 

No matter the make-up of your team, ensure that everyone regularly has a conversation with you where (firstly) their career journey is mapped out in terms of both seniority and “track” – and (secondly) the steps they require to take to make the next rung of the ladder are clearly defined and understood. Nothing tempts top talent away more than clarity over career mapping where ambiguity exists. Nothing.  Recognise that not everyone wants to be a manager, that some members of the team just want to “do stuff themselves” and that others are naturally drawn towards the “business end” of the conversation and tailor development plans to reflect this reality. Don’t be scared to create bespoke career plans for people who “don’t fit the norm”

Encourage diversity at the top 

It goes without saying that, should you want to retain your top data talent, they should see versions of themselves at the very top of your organisation. And, if that’s not possible to influence, at the very least the leadership level of the data function should be reflective of the diversity of the team.

If everyone at the top of the team has green hair and pigtails – anyone who doesn’t have green hair and pigtails might start to look elsewhere for a team and/or organisation that reflects their characteristics, no?

This is where simple, subtle changes can make a massive difference. Without getting into yet another debate about the advantages and disadvantages of remote working (yawn) look to offer as much choice as possible with regards to office/home working patterns. There is no right or wrong answer to this question but affording the most choice ensures the widest start point for diversity within the team. 

Facilitate upskilling and accreditation 

Create as much choice as you can and promote a team culture where upskilling and the accreditation that accompanies this process is recognised and valued. Ensure that the career mapping process provides as seamless a join as possible to individual upskilling and champion regularly, inside and outside the organisation, those who complete accreditations. 

Many within the data community value the opportunity to hone and advance their skills on a regular basis, both within their chosen “vertical” and into adjacent areas. Be the organisation that provides as much support, encouragement, and practical help to do this as possible. If you don’t, you will always be at the mercy of those who do. Look to build partnerships with vendors wherever possible to assist in this process. 

 

Stay on top of reward

Ensure that your overall reward package / Employee Value Proposition is regularly reviewed (against external benchmarks, please!) and is integrated into both your individual career mapping and upskilling programmes. 

In the case of reward packages, one eye should constantly be fixed on what competitors are offering. However, please be careful that this eye does not fixate too much on local geographic competitors (data talent is truly globally remote these days) and, instead, look at what international competitors are offering their talent, too. You can never get complacent. 

Your EVP is the crucial holistic total of everything we’ve mentioned in this short article. It’s the “why” your talent will stay with you. It’s everything from culture, to purpose, to the jobs people do and the tools, tech, and techniques they use to do these jobs. It’s the career journey you’ve mapped out with them – to the rewards (from recognition through to bonuses) that they’ll receive for working with you. It should be a living, breathing thing – nurtured, pruned and cultivated carefully and regularly. 

Re-steer where you must

Don’t ever be frightened to react to what’s going on out there. If you become aware that a new tech hub is being opened around the corner and their talent hunters are targeting your data team – find out what’s on offer and match it if you can. If you hear that someone from the other side of the world has reached out to have a chat with someone in the team – ask what’s enticing about the opportunity. Nothing is set in stone, and nothing lasts forever. You need to re-steer the conversation regularly and honestly. There will always be people who leave the business, you can’t get everything right, every time, but make sure you are asking the “why?” question on each occasion someone does move on and, if it’s in your power to change things to stop someone else from leaving for the same reasons, do it. Don’t get complacent. Re-steering should be a common and normal process within the team. Have an open and honest dialogue around it and include as many as possible in the formulation of new proposals. 

So, there we have it. Your cast-iron, no quibble 100% guaranteed guide to never, EVER, losing your best data talent.

Except it’s not. 

As we mentioned above, there will always be people who leave. 

Businesses like ours wouldn’t exist if there weren’t. However, you, as a data leader, can ensure that the chances of that happening are lessened by following the advice listed above. After all, we didn’t invent this stuff off the top of our head. We got these ideas by talking to people who were leaving jobs – and by asking them why they were leaving. 

Just a thought.