Who wants to be a millionaire?

Can you win the battle to retain an IT staff that's tempted by the allure of start-ups and IPO stock options? Is that your final answer?

"To inexpensively retain your IT staff, which is being lured away by more money, it takes a bit more imagination than wrapping up a 10-pack of Nestles $100,000 bars as a performance bonus. "

Chris Miksanek
Illustration: Daniel Guidera

The '70s are a much-maligned decade. It saw the fall of Saigon and the rise of inflation. It gave us the "Dukes of Hazzard" and added "Sit on it" and "Kiss my grits!" to our vocabulary. And while Madison Avenue spent millions to convince us we were the Pepsi generation, history has been less kind: Those who came of age during the 1970s are generally referred to as the "Me Generation."

Although it may be too early to paint our current decade with a wide brush, the "oughts" (has anyone come up with a less awkward name?) are shaping up to make the "Me Generation" look like unselfish benefactors in comparison. With the Holy Grail of stock options and IPOs intoxicating new IT grads and veterans alike, this decade will surely go down in the annals as the "Greed Generation."

"So what's new?" you ask. "I've heard the exit interviews. I know everyone's leaving to 'pursue better opportunities.'" What's new is that this time your [former] staff isn't lying in those exit interviews. Where in the past people switched jobs for any of several reasons, most of today's job hoppers--from coder to project manager to senior executive--are leaving for one reason: so their new employers can "show them the money."

Dr. Hahnemann Ortiz, who developed an MBA program in entrepreneurship at the University of Texas, Austin, admits society is partially to blame. "We have a culture with movies that literally tell us 'greed is good,' and a generation who grew up with role models like Thurston Howell III, Jed Clampett, and Richie Rich," he says. "You know, I've actually heard economics students argue whether the evil Mr. Potter, from the movie It's a Wonderful Life would be more wealthy in today's dollars than Yahoo's Jerry Yang." See "Who needs to be a millionaire, anyway?"

Clearly we live in a society where values are skewed. But how do you keep people from exercising their basic human right to seek capitalistic riches so they can spend their declining years (i.e., their 30s) in a hammock on an island beach? How do you retain your staff and prevent a brain drain that jeopardizes your organization's future?

How do you retain quality staff? Buzz in if you know the correct answer

Perks can go a long way, but the lure, many IT executives say, is money. It's salary, sign-on bonus, options--a slice of the pie. "It's hard enough to compete for market share," says Cuyahoga Technology Inc.'s CIO Paul Flerick. "Now we're competing for staff as well."

The solution, albeit expensive, is clear, according to Flerick: "These days, you have to create an opportunity for your own people to be millionaires." But how do you accomplish that from the comfort of your own org chart and without putting your profit sharing at risk?

As it turns out, the solution to that dilemma is no more complex than the plot of an Elvis movie--but it does take a bit more imagination than wrapping up a 10-pack of Nestles $100,000 bars as a performance bonus. Here are a few inexpensive ways to make your staff millionaires:

Chris Miksanek
Illustration: Daniel Guidera
Chris Miksanek

Take it offshore: Move your payroll department to a country where their dollar doesn't quite have the, shall we say, purchasing power, of the good ol' greenback. One Taiwan dollar, for instance, is worth little more than three U.S. cents. You can make your entire staff millionaires if you pay them in Jamaican dollars (2.4 cents to the U.S. buck). "Hey mon, in Kingston, you are a millionaire. Never mind that in Florida you're scarcely pulling down $24K in U.S. dollars. No problem. Everyone on your staff is irie in Jamaica!"

Continuing education: Your people complain they haven't taken a class in years. Here's your chance to kill two birds with one stone. [NOTE: Datamation does not advocate the mistreatment of our little winged friends--it's just an expression--though the little buggers are quite annoying after we've spent the afternoon washing our cars.]

We were talking about how education can make your staff millionaires at no risk to you. Yes, that's right. Don Lapre is currently offering a 30-day, free examination of his new program to make a million dollars by placing small classified ads in local newspapers. Many similar programs exist. Work with your staff development coordinator and see if no-money-down real estate programs offer a bigger bang for your buck. You're not just giving your staff an education; you're giving them a great opportunity to earn millions.

Just give 'em the damn money!: Last year's lame attempt to make your staff millionaires went over like a hiccup in church. Remember? You gave your staff lotto quick-picks in lieu of a holiday turkey. The problem wasn't that no one won, the problem was that someone might have won. Then you would have created dissension and hard feelings among the losers.

This year, develop a staff retention program where you reward their loyalty and contributions with a bonus worth [CUT TO CLOSE-UP OF DR. EVIL] "one million dollars!"

Relax. It's not as frightening as it sounds. Remember, it's a retention bonus. They don't get it all at once. They get one dollar a year for a million years. Sure it's a bad joke, but if you get the agreement in writing and the only way out of it is for them to bury a pair of shoe soles at the crossroads, you have your cake and can eat it, too.

You get the point. If money's your strategy for retaining people, go forth and create wealth.

Sorry, that's not the correct answer, but we have a nice parting gift for you. It's called a severance package...

Exit interviews aside, professor Ortiz says those participating in his MBA program are not necessarily seeking greater financial opportunity. "They understand 97 out of a 100 start-ups will shut down inside of two years," he says. "And they know the likelihood that stock options will make them millionaires is about the same as bumping into Bill Gates at Wal-Mart."

The "opportunity" they are pursuing is the opportunity to have a greater impact on the organization. "Academia has tenure; corporate America has vesting. Both have a problem. In either of those security blankets there is little motivation to rock the status quo," professor Ortiz says.

Blame corporations for creating career plateaus. "When a company is small, there is genuine teamwork and esprit de corps," Cuyahoga's Flerick says. "When that small company grows into a corporation, the 'team' evolves into a chain gang, and a day at the office is about as routine as scooping the litter box. Innovation yields to administration; process takes a backseat to progress. A once true contender is now just a poor pretender. I've seen it happen. When more money is spent training people in administrative processes and policies than in new technology, you know you're at the feeble end of the corporate cycle and are dangerously close to alienating your brain trust and, indeed, the future of your organization."

Today's staffs, University of Texas' Ortiz says, are looking to do it all over again. They want to have the influence they once had. Smaller companies give them a bigger voice in making decisions. And at the end of the day, that's the opportunity they're pursuing.

If a mature organization wants to retain its staff, they have to foster an entrepreneurial environment. When IBM Corp. acquired Lotus Development Corp. and Tivoli Systems Inc., it let both companies remain autonomous.

For many corporations, spinning off lean-and-mean micro-internal organizations is the solution; for others, a complete cultural paradigm shift is in order. But, professor Ortiz says, "It all has to start with the realization that there's a root cause for attrition. Either find that cause, or be prepared to start cutting million-dollar counteroffer checks." //



Who needs to be a millionaire, anyway?


Professor Ortiz likes to relate the following story to help ground his first-year students.

An American venture capitalist was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked nearby. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, only a little while. The American then asked why didn't he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs. The American asked what he did with the rest of his day.

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos."

The American offered: "I have an MBA from Texas A&M and could help. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a larger boat. With the proceeds from a larger boat you could buy several more boats. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you could sell directly to the processor and open your own cannery. You would ultimately control the supply of product, processing, and distribution. Of course, you would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then to Los Angeles, and eventually to New York where you will run your enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "How long will all this take?"

The American replied, "Fifteen to twenty years."

"What then?" asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions."

"Millions? Then what?" the Mexican asked again.

"Then you could retire," the American replied, "move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos."






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