Growth, recognition key to retaining young talent

How a high-tech company is attracting and developing the next generation of high-performance process control professionals.

By Martin Berutti

I am not an expert in generational studies or millennials or corporate organization or future trends. The management and team-building approaches described here did not come from any specific books or course or formal process. It’s just what we had to do to meet one of the biggest challenges we faced as a growing technology and software business—finding the right people.

Before starting the business, I was in the unique position of an insider at the introduction of a “disruptive” process automation technology. The technical part was very fun, but even more exciting was working with the incredible talent leading that effort. My insider status allowed me to see firsthand the impact of the right team on the growth of a business. I knew right away that I needed to replicate that excitement and spirit for our business to grow and prosper. And to replicate that excitement and spirit, I needed the right team.

No situation is perfect

Our business direction was based on the goal of changing our industry—to be a disruptive force, providing greater value to plant operations, providing a means for operations management to reduce the cost, risk and complexity of running their plant. We wanted to make it easier, quicker and less costly for plant operations to get better business results. And we wanted to have fun doing it.

We started in 2002 with four people and a lot of big dreams. But four people can only get so much done, so finding the right talent to add to our little team was very important. By the end of 2014, we had grown to an organization of about 40 professionals. But the climb from four to 40 has not been an easy one. Growing the organization and getting the right people who can provide value to our customers has given us a number of difficult decisions.

One aspect of our reality is our location. Being based in the midwestern U.S. provides us a good, stable workforce and low cost of living. But unlike the Gulf Coast, we don’t have a lot of process industry, and unlike the East and West coasts, we don’t have a lot of high-tech industry. However, we do have excellent universities close by that graduate chemical and computer engineers who are ready to go to work. And we've proven that we can quickly get these recent grads productive. As a result, our company has undergone a demographic shift from mostly older employees to our current census: the Old Guys (50 and over), of which I'm one, are 22% of our employees. The Gap is that big elusive demographic (ages 31-49) is only 11% of our company. And by far the biggest group is what I affectionately call the Kids (30 and under) at 66% of our employees.

Reach out for talent

While we don’t hesitate to hire experienced engineers when we can find them, our solution is a staff made primarily of recent college graduates. Our success is built around four key principles. First, we aggressively pursue and hire the best talent we can find. We want brilliant young people. Second, we give them every possibility to grow their skills and capabilities very quickly. We want their learning curves to be very steep. Third, we ask our more senior members, the Old Guys and the Gap, to serve as mentors and leaders for this raw, young talent. And finally, my goal is to keep all of our employees happy and challenged.

Very smart, very talented young people want to work with other very smart, very talented people. They will help you find more stars if you treat them right.

Our first goal was to find a way to attract top young talent. It became very clear several years ago that we needed a university partnership. We settled on the Missouri University of Science and Technology, providing visibility to their best and brightest students. We also raise our visibility with other chemical engineering departments by sponsoring an AIChE student award we call Virtus Dynamica (Latin for dynamic excellence), which goes to the top Chem E senior at Missouri S&T, University of Missouri and Washington University. We attend career fairs at all three universities and present at student AIChE meetings, and I was invited to be a guest lecturer for the engineering ethics class at Missouri S&T. Our co-op and intern program provides an excellent source of supplemental project labor and is the pipeline for our next class of talented dynamic simulation engineers. And, we reach out to local St. Louis high school STEM programs by sponsoring FIRST Robotics teams and hosting a pizza party/afternoon introduction to dynamic simulation with a hands-on process control game we call Man vs Machine.

Grow new engineers quickly

Growing our talented young professionals quickly has been a key to our growth. First, we teach them how to build good process models and do it in a manner that follows our quality and project execution processes. Every new engineer has to complete a mini capstone project based on a real process and process control design. Our young team is great at finding information, but we try to make it easy by publishing all our training documents in a Wiki on our intranet. We were fortunate to have Greg McMillan join us a couple years ago as a part-time simulation and control consultant. Greg is an incredible mentor and teacher, and works with our young talent on new projects and publications. His knowledge and desire to transfer that knowledge to the next generation has been a huge benefit. Finally, we aggressively fund graduate degrees to grow the in-depth knowledge required by our organization.

A key factor for quick growth is the culture and values of the organization. We strive to embody a high-performance culture where we give our young talent a lot of freedom, but also a lot of responsibility, early on. We want to see if they can accept a challenge and persevere. But to temper that drive for performance, we always stress our core values as the guiding principles for working with our customers, partners and each other. A key value is Attitude, which we define as being a positive influence and treating each person with respect and dignity. The office environment is so important to growing a high-performance organization. People need space to think and grow and share. We resisted the temptation to box our folks into cramped cubes or a dingy office. Our associates have big workspaces, well lit, in a beautiful high-tech environment. It’s a place where they can be comfortable and proud. The cost of providing a great space versus a not-so-great place is insignificant. Finally, our flat organization allows us to move past titles and power struggles to focus on serving our customers and building great simulations. A flexible organization allows us to change and move quickly when we need to adjust our strategic direction.

Keep them happy

Recognition is so critical to growing a young professional team, but it needs to be meaningful and significant. We all need heroes to emulate, and we try to point out the heroes of our organization once a year with our Ab Initio award. Ab Initio is a Latin term for “from first principles,” which happens to be the right method for a good dynamic simulation. We only give out one Ab Initio, once a year. Management isn't eligible, and it has to be someone who embodies our core values and the spirit of our organization.

We also try to foster an environment of continual feedback, where recognition of achievement as well as gentle redirection is continually given by our management team and our leaders. Finally, opportunity and greater responsibility come by achievement and skills, not through tenure.

Turnover is a management challenge, and that challenge can be magnified in a small organization. Keeping our talented young and older professionals happy is a high priority. The first way is to give them feedback and pay them fairly. We try to keep this simple and consistent. Our employee performance goal-setting is continual and automated, so it can be adjusted as the person grows and accepts new challenges. It goes hand-in-hand with continual feedback and dialog between the manager/leader and the employee. Salary and variable compensation are adjusted or awarded based on the employee’s contribution to our growth and our corporate business results. The key is to keep this process of measurement and reward transparent and consistent.

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And we want to make it fun. Having an atmosphere where all our professionals are comfortable and engaging each other is a high priority for us. We sponsor fun company events, but we also encourage our employees to enjoy our office space. A couple of our young professionals asked if they could play games in the office once a week. Game night is now a weekly event, every Wednesday night. We insist that the executive management and the leadership be open and accessible to the needs of all associates. Being ready to help and quickly assist our younger professionals is a key part of our culture.

Our results

What results can we show for our efforts to attract this next generation of industry professionals, challenge them, recognize them and keep them happy? We measure our success in several ways. The first is revenue and profit growth of our overall business and key product lines. Active measurement of customer satisfaction is a key part of our business management. In the case of our simulation projects, one measure of success has been a phenomenal indication of the value our young teams are bringing to the customer base, gained from customer surveys at the end of simulation projects. We also run an annual employee survey where we try to gauge how happy our people are, and assess the performance of the management team in building a good work environment.

If you decide to build your team with younger professionals, here is my advice for you. Hire the best young talent you can find. You will never regret getting top performers and very smart, very talented young people want to work with other very smart, very talented people. They will help you find more stars if you treat them right. Don’t let mentoring just happen, build a formal mentor program and give them the tools to succeed. Be ready to serve and support. If you lead an organization, your job is to help your people grow and thrive. For your organization to grow and stay healthy, your number one priority is helping the people who work for you meet their goals. Get rid of artificial limits and restrictions that don’t serve any purpose. Stop any power grabs before they upset your young talent. Guard your culture from people or systems that can disrupt it. Show your love! If you are like me and you are hiring amazing young people who could be your own children, treat them like you would your own kids. Be part of their lives. They will respond to your true intentions and interest, and your life will be richer for it.

My personal experience has proven to me that building high-performance teams with younger professionals is not only possible, it is also very rewarding. So if you want to grow your organization with an amazing generation of talented young professionals, build your team—and leave the kids in charge.