In late 2010 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that on average an employee changes jobs 11 times between the ages of 18 and 42. That translates to an average tenure with a given employer of less than 2.5 years.
In the aerospace industry, as well as in other high technology, service-focused industries, a primary indicator of market-dominating success is the prevalence of employee talent with 5 to 20+ years of experience in the company. Those high performers that grow up with your company gain wisdom from battle scars and lessons learned.
To paraphrase Mastercard: Value of talented employees that know your business and customers intimately? Priceless.
This might frighten you, but it can also excite: Be great at retaining great talent and industry-leading success will follow. There is much to be said for “Do One Thing Well” and this is a pretty good "One Thing." There are many strategies for retention – incentive packages, vesting options, generous benefits. Some are expensive; some work better than others.
But I believe one of the most powerful strategies flies under the radar:
If you want talent that stays, manage for the family.
When Starsys was founded more than 20 years ago, we had declared that while we strived to be best-in-class, we would also make quality-of-life a guiding principle. We drove that deep into our company DNA along with the more familiar excellence, integrity and innovation. We wanted to be the kind of company we wanted to work for.
This evolved over the years to managing the company to be not only the company employees wanted to work at, but to be the company that the family was glad mom or dad worked for. It permeated our decision process: balancing the conflicting needs of financial return with the quality of life of our employee families.
Dozens of policies and practices came from this balancing act through the years. None by themselves were earth-shaking, but the sum total said much about what was important to us:
- Children and spouses were welcomed in the company. We took the time to get to know the family, explain our work, make it clear that a visit was welcome, not an imposition.
- We encouraged employees to take company time to go into their children’s classrooms, whether it be talking about Mars, performing Mr. Wizard experiments with liquid nitrogen or storytelling.
- We worked to minimize overnight travel. When possible we were creative with travel budgets to support employees taking spouses or the family along to special locations.
- Rewards for performance honored the spouse: weekends away at a bed and breakfast, hot air balloon rides for two.
- We supported local schools by opening the doors for tours given by company leadership.
- We experimented with, and then adopted a work schedule with every other Friday off, giving employee families a three-day weekend 26 times a year (a topic for a future blog).
For the first 15 years of Starsys growth, annual employee retention hovered between 90 and 95 percent. At our 15-year anniversary we counted 65 employees with five or more years of tenure. More than 20 of these had 10 years or more experience in our company.
And anecdotal evidence tells me they weren't there just because it was a reliable job. Take this story:
By any standard, the Starsys Christmas party was epic. A talent show with a manager on a unicycle. Great food. A rowdy band. A gag gift exchange that included a can of pickled herring so beyond its spoil date it had inflated and had to be kept away from sharp objects.
The evening was a Keeper, one we knew we would all remember. After dinner I stood in the warm glow of a great party to toast and thank the 150 employees and spouses that were there. When I got to the point of sharing the profit numbers for the year I was astonished by spontaneous cheering. Not the “Since Jim the suck-up is clapping, I guess we all should” variety. The room just erupted with “Wahooo!” I was caught unawares by not only the enthusiasm, but by my emotional response to it.
Towards the end of the evening she went out of her way to track me down. Mary was the wife of a top project manager we had brought into the company a couple years back, and she motioned me to a quiet part of the room. “I just wanted you to know how much it means to us the Bill is working here.” I brushed off the compliment with a quick “We’re glad to have him…” She stopped me short and put her hand on my forearm. “No. You need to know that it has changed our family. Thank you. We are here for good.”
As Christmas parties go, that evening was a high-water mark for the company. Looking back, the telling thing was my most memorable moment. Rather than the public celebration of the money made it was Mary’s private "thank you."
Later that year Bill navigated us through a minefield of a program and saved us far more than any of our family-oriented management had cost. Although not our original intent, through the years we discovered that driving “quality of life” deep into our corporate DNA was also very good business.
Scott Tibbitts is the founder and former CEO of Starsys Research and a nationally recognized speaker on entrepreneurship and legendary corporate cultures. In 1988, he approached NASA with an invention made from hardware store parts. Starsys became a world leader in spacecraft devices, with products on 250 spacecraft and an unprecedented 100% success record. Scott is the co-founder of eSpace: The Center for Space Entrepreneurship, the only congressionally funded aerospace incubator, and is currently working with telecom providers to deploy an invention that prevents texting while driving.