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Business Officer Magazine

Insights: Lew Temares Talks HR for Techies

By Karla Taylor

Temares, vice president for information technology and dean of the college of engineering at the University of Miami, won CIO magazine’s CIO 100 award in 2003. And in 2004, Computerworld magazine ranked the Florida university the nation’s No. 1 place to work in IT. In this interview with Business Officer, Temares shares his thoughts on the vital roles of flexibility, training, and schmoozing, and the value of a boss who thinks like a marketer.

Tell me your basic philosophy related to recruiting and retaining IT staff.
Everyone can buy Cisco and IBM gear, but what makes the real difference is how your people use it. That’s why you need to recruit right and retain long. We’ve had less than 5 percent attrition for a long time. That’s in a staff of 262 that does telecom, computing, end user support, application development, and so on.

What are some things you do to retain good people?
What keeps people are opportunities for interesting and challenging work. We try to give staff the independence to try new things, and we don’t penalize them for making an intelligent mistake. We say, “Clean it up, and let’s go on.”

Everyone knows that people don’t always get along with their bosses. In that case, if we think the people are worthy, we try to find them another place in IT.

Does it make a difference that campus IT staff must often work closely with professors?
With academia you’re often dealing with a lot of egos. You know how independent faculty are. Corporations can issue an edict and make things happen. We don’t work that way in higher education. So, we spend more time schmoozing, doing favors, building relationships.

Your IT people are good schmoozers? They aren’t always known for that.
Some are nerds, and you’ve got to keep the nerds away from people who don’t like nerds. It’s like with faculty—you keep the ones who can only do research away from teaching undergraduates. But when my staff are interested in becoming well versed in how to work with people, I send them to Dale Carnegie classes—yes, the ones for winning friends and influencing people. We spend about 7.5 percent of our budget for training of all kinds. Staff appreciate that we say, “You’re important enough to merit further education.”

What do those who lead IT staff need to know?
For one thing, they need to know marketing because they’ve got to market IT. You need to get off your seat and out of your office. You should set up advisory committees around campus so it’s not only you deciding priorities. This way you make use of the intelligence of everybody around you.

What do you see your fellow IT leaders failing to provide?
Besides challenging work and training? I’d say opportunities for advancement. And flextime. With programmers, it doesn’t matter if they’re working 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. And if people want to work from home, that’s appropriate with the boss’s OK.

Some places don’t provide the tools people need to do their job, including even the right desk and proper lighting. My job is to provide the tools and keep people out of political involvement. If politics interferes, Mr. Charm will intervene. I know a lot of people around this university. Being here 25 years does that. If something has to be resolved at the VP level, I go to that level. I don’t intervene until staff tell me they need my help. I explain it this way: Failure is not failing; failure is not asking for help when you need it.

Can you pinpoint the biggest mistake most campuses make in terms of staffing decisions?
They don’t allow people to fail. They don’t do teams enough. And then there is my pet peeve: They don’t fire the bad people. There are limited rewards for good people in higher education. We aren’t the biggest payers, so it’s unconscionable to let the bad employees stay.

How can chief business officers keep IT staff happy?
My senior VP for business and finance is ideal. He gives us advice and alternatives for ways we can do things better. For example, in the 1980s we had to change all our administrative systems. My VP worked out a way to amortize the cost so that when we explained the project to our board of trustees, it looked like a $3 million-a-year job instead of a $20 million project. He understands debt service, reserves—the things that teach us how to better use our resources. We couldn’t operate without him.

What’s your best advice for leaders who want to attract good people?
I believe in being agile, mobile, and versatile. You’ve got to keep moving, and you’ve got to be visible. And you’d better have a good product to market. Very few people can’t see through a sham. But that’s it, basically: good people, good product, good marketing.

KARLA TAYLOR, Bethesda, Maryland, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.