It's early February, and throughout PG&E's San Francisco headquarters, there's a general sense of shell shock, says CIO Roger Gray. "A few weeks ago, we hit rock bottom," he says, reflecting on California's energy crisis and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s financial woes.
All of which makes Gray's job more difficult than ever. Despite the growing number of layoffs around the nation, the IT labor market remains tight. So keeping his staff motivated and interested in their work is as complicated as it is critical.
"Even without a crisis, it's a unique challenge to keep IT people motivated," says Gray. "The challenge now is really staying focused on the work we have while everything's unfolding around you."
That's no easy task at PG&E, which, like rival utility Rosemead, Calif.-based Edison International, has lost billions of dollars during the past year from inflated energy costs due to the effects of deregulation on California's electricity market. But Gray's strategy is simple. He's honest with his staff, even when he has to deliver hard news. He provides news updates through morning and afternoon e-mails.
"I share the good, the bad and the ugly," he says. "If it's ugly, I'd rather them hear it from me than the news [media]. The minute they sense we're trying to pull the wool over their eyes, they'll walk."
For instance, will PG&E wind up filing for bankruptcy? If an employee asks the question, Gray says he won't rush to deny the possibility. Instead, he says, "You can tell people what bankruptcy is, and what it might be like to go through," preparing them so they'll be ready if it does come to that.
But while he tries to remain realistic about the situation, Gray says he's also optimistic. The average tenure for IT employees at PG&E is 20 years. Besides, he points out, the company has made it through everything from earthquakes to forest fires.
"We have a pretty long history of facing crises and being able to come back," says Gray.
Going the Distance
Frank Hood, CIO at Krispy Kreme Doughnut Corp. in Winston-Salem, N.C., led his employees through a difficult period in 1997 when he came onboard and decided to overhaul the company's IT infrastructure. "We literally replaced everything," he recalls.
On top of that, he broke the news to employees that they had to be ready for Y2k by February 1999 because of the company's fiscal calendar. "You just heard their jaws drop," Hood says.
Some employees left because they weren't sure they'd be able to adjust to the new environment, he says. But others took it piece by piece and surprised not only Hood but also themselves.
From that experience, Hood learned a few strategies for motivating his people. For starters, the Krispy Kreme IT team has a nonhierarchical structure, which gives projects a "grassroots" feel, he says.
One of Hood's most successful techniques is to support people while pushing them beyond their limitations. "What we've tried to do is say, We're going to gamble a little bit, we're going to take you to what you think is the cusp of failure and then we're going to back you up,' " he says.
The result? "You can hardly describe it," says Hood. "You can see it in their eyes. They dig it."
That kind of rush is more powerful than money or benefits for many IT employees, says Edward M. Roche, a New York-based chief scientist at The Concours Group Inc., a Kingwood, Texas-based IT management consulting firm.
"Breaking the bounds, going where you're not supposed to, doing the impossible. Those are the kinds of things that really drive people," says Roche. "It's mountain-climbing syndrome."
Hiring the Rebels
Walk through the doors of one well-known Silicon Valley e-commerce software firm and there aren't too many surprises, says Roche. Just standard office cubicles. Then it catches your eye: a Satanic altar with candle wax dripping down.
Turns out, the cube belongs to the chief programmer who develops most of the code for the company. "If I had someone like that, I wouldn't care what they look like or have in their stall," Roche says. Learning to look the other way when it comes to things like unusual work hours or personal grooming habits can go a long way toward earning the commitment and respect of IT employees, he says.
Mike Busch, director of IT at Patagonia Inc., an outdoor clothing retailer in Ventura, Calif., makes a point of hiring people with unique interests because he believes that bringing in the right kinds of employees goes a long way toward creating a motivational environment. For instance, he has a piano player and someone who restores vintage cars on staff.
"It helps me from the management side to know that people are really passionate about something," Busch says. "That gives me a good idea that they're going to be passionate about their work, too."