Improving the State of your Testing Team: Part Four – Attracting and Retaining Talent

The greatest challenge in building a team is finding good people. But as difficult as finding those people can be, keeping them motivated and in the building after you hire them is where the real work begins. Almost the entirety of our improvement program in the Global Test Center (GTC) is based on talent management. Metrics? Nope. Maturity models? Nope. Best practices? Nope. They only way we are going to improve the state of testing here (or anywhere IMHO) is by focusing on hiring, training, and motivating the best testers in the industry. And the approach we’ve taken has three parts:

  1. Creating an environment of honesty and transparency
  2. Building a development structure focused on training, coaching and mentoring
  3. Transferring control and quality of work to the teams

A Case for Transparent Management

The greatest advice I ever got on hiring managers was from one of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work for, and her motto was: “People don’t quit their company; they quit their manager”. There is a lot truth in that statement, and it echos a Forbes article published last year that boiled down all the “top 10” reasons why talented people leave companies into one:

“Top talent leave an organization when they’re badly managed and the organization is confusing and uninspiring.”

Want to run your best people off quickly and efficiently? Make them work for uninspiring leadership that treats people like children by not sharing information. In “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization“, Peter Senge talks about building a learning organization through honesty and actively sharing information. I tell my teams everything I possibly (and legally) can so they aren’t confused about my thought process and as a result, buy into my decisions.

Don’t judge me on my access to information – measure me on the decisions I make with that information. That’s where my experience and skill as a manager comes in to play and differentiates me from my peers. Withholding information from your teams is a very standard practice for frightened or immature managers, and is incredibly damaging to the culture of your team. Transparency is probably the most important – and completely controllable aspect of your management style that will impact unwanted attrition.

Failure = Success

I may have a slight bias from watching him play basketball for the Chicago Bulls, but Michael Jordan’s perspective on failure encapsulates my approach to developing people: “I’ve failed over, and over, and over again in my life – and that is why I succeed.” Letting people fail means you are setting them up for success. Unfortunately, most of the training programs I’ve seen run on the premise that you can transfer knowledge to people through strictly explicit means. The problem is that most of what we need to learn (and specifically to try and fail) only comes from tacit knowledge, which by definition isn’t easily learned through reading and writing.*

“I fail…and that is why I succeed.”

We have structured our GTC University into three distinct areas: training, coaching, and mentoring. Training is all the stuff we need people to read and understand to do the basics of their jobs. That’s focused on functional knowledge, white papers and books on testing, videos, etc., all stuff they can digest in their own way and time. Coaching takes people through specific techniques and approaches and then lets them practice while we watch with an immediate feedback loop. Test Management Mentoring is our program of pairing “up and coming” test leads and managers with senior test managers they don’t report to and focuses on large, strategic testing problems.

GTC University

Without all three, and especially coaching and mentoring, you run the risk of a shallow development program that only delivers the lowest value knowledge acquisition. People need to try and fail in a safe environment so they can have confidence to suceed in real projects. I think this quote my mom left in my notebook when she dropped me off for my first day at college sums it up nicely:

“And if it be said, that continual success is a proof that a man wisely knows his powers, – it is only to be added, that, in that case, he knows them to be small.”H Melville

A Players Hire A Players – B Players Hire C Players

Weak managers will actively discourage autonomy to maintain control. Talented people in creative, intellectual activities (like testing software) HAVE to have a large amount of autonomy to be successful. In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, Daniel Pink suggests a terrific technique for gauging how much autonomy the people in your team really have. Autonomy audits put your control issues somewhere on a scale between a “North Korean prison and Woodstock”. If you are not giving people control over their own work, you can only expect them to hire teams whose work they can control.

Once you’ve let go of control and really trust your teams, let them take responsibility for the quality of their culture. I encourage my teams to make it difficult to join them as I want them to set their OWN barriers for entry and not let just anyone into our club. And now that they truly own their work and environment, they hold each other to standards I could never enforce as a manager. Great people aren’t easy to find or grow, but I believe if you work in a transparent way, deliver all three elements of development, and give people ownership of their work, your chances of finding and retaining your A players are greatly increased.

*For more on that topic I HIGHLY recommend Michael Bolton’s writing and the excellent book he introduced to me by Harry Collins.

2 thoughts on “Improving the State of your Testing Team: Part Four – Attracting and Retaining Talent

  1. Nice to read that big and small companies can agree that transparency is a good thing –

    Couple of comments on your ‘A players hire A players’ – sounds a bit like the stat that most people consider themselves good drivers and better than average. Wont most people consider themselves A players ? And as the resource of A players to hire is small how do you deal with that ? If you have a good training scheme do you hire B people and train them up to be A people ? Do you look for potential to be an A person ? ( if so, what is it that makes them so ? )

    I didn’t see much about attracting people despite the title of the post – how do you go about attracting an A person to join ? Where do you go to find them and why would they choose you ?

    • I don’t know about driving statistics, but I believe that most people do not think they are “A Players” when they are shown an appropriate model, and as well, I use that as heuristic to judge an individual’s hiring ability. As far as I’m concerned, people who fit into the top tier of talent aren’t threatened by hiring peers. Further to that, we do have a holistic training program that covers soft skills as well as functional/discipline specifics and we manage very closely the ones who we see as high potential. Most of the “attracting” we do is by reputation, as I don’t run big recruitment events outside of some regional work. Sure, we plow through a ton of cv’s (and reject a ton as well), but for most of our senior and specialist hires, we are seeing them seek us out for roles.

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