In recent years, news outlets have stressed the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. How important are these skills?

  • 75% of the fastest-growing occupations require STEM skills.
  • U.S. employment in STEM fields has gone up more than 30% since 2000.

This information is great to hear if you are a STEM advocate or someone with STEM skills. There is just one problem: Many STEM-skilled employees are not staying at the STEM organizations that employ them.

What is causing this churn? While some employees might be lured away by greener pastures, most of them are leaving to escape demotivating work environments.

According to a Quinlan & Associates study, young investment bankers and seasoned banking executives are leaving their jobs due to deficits in morale, mentoring, career development and work-life balance. Furthermore, “one-third of survey respondents are intending to leave their current position within the next 12-24 months.”

This voluntary turnover costs some global banks up to $1 billion annually.

STEM organizations in the science arena have turnover challenges resulting from work environment issues such as insufficient career development and long work hours. For example, findings from the Leaders for Today survey show that hospitals are facing unprecedented employee turnover across a range of positions including nurses, physicians, and clinical/nonclinical administration.

Women and people of color are leaving technology jobs due to harassment, stereotyping and bullying according to the Kapor Center’s Tech Leavers Study. This turnover costs the technology industry more than $16 billion each year.

STEM organizations in the engineering arena are also experiencing more voluntary turnover as women leave engineering roles. When the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) tried to figure out why women are leaving, it made some interesting discoveries:

  • Women report their top desired values (e.g. accountability, empowerment and coaching) are missing from the culture of the organizations.
  • The organizations talk about certain core values such as quality and excellence, but women (and men) are not seeing these values demonstrated.

Karen Horting, CEO of the SWE, explained that these disparities suggest a lack of confidence in company direction. This, in turn, decreases employee engagement and retention.

The situations in the banking, healthcare, technology and engineering arenas highlight the impact of the STEM work environment. Unfortunately, these situations point out the negative impact it can have: turnover that results in financial costs and the loss of valuable talent.

The Positive STEM Work Environment

Fortunately, the work environment can be an asset, as opposed to a liability, for STEM organizations. When STEM organizations establish a motivating work environment, people want to stay and the organizations prosper. In this diverse and inclusive work environment, employees know what is expected of them, they have authority delegated to them and they are rewarded for performance. They also receive guidance and feedback that helps them succeed in their current jobs and prepare for the next ones.

As a result, employees are proud to work for these organizations and willing to put in the extra effort without being asked. Employee perception of this work environment (aka organizational climate) is a robust predictor of business performance such as profit, cash flow return on investment, efficiency and growth in sales.

When company norms, values and beliefs (aka organizational culture) inspire and focus on enhancing performance, employees and the customers they serve feel appreciated. This type of culture motivates people and facilitates adapting to market changes, resulting in better business performance. For example, companies with performance-enhancing cultures showed a 682% increase in revenue and 901% appreciation in stock price over an 11-year period.

The Critical Building Block

There are many factors that contribute to the work environment, but business research consistently shows that leadership is a critical building block. At least 50% of the variability in organizational climate can be attributed to the daily practices leaders use in working with others. Leaders are the enablers of employees’ commitment to their jobs, teams and organizations. These leaders account for at least 70% of the variability in engagement scores across business units.

Having worked in over 20 industries and analyzed 10 years of leadership assessments from STEM organizations, I can tell you that the way leaders carry themselves and tactfully handle tricky situations makes a big difference. The right amount of finesse enables these leaders to appreciate different viewpoints, effectively communicate expectations and empower employees to meet (or exceed) them. It helps leaders keep a difference in perspective from escalating into bullying.

Leaders with this finesse tune into what STEM-skilled employees need and provide coaching at the appropriate time. Consequently, successful STEM organizations create motivating work environments by making leadership development a priority.

Where to Begin

If leadership development is so important to the work environment of STEM organizations, what are starting points? Consider these strategies:

  1. Build proficiency, not just knowledge. When developing leaders, STEM organizations often focus too much on increasing knowledge of leadership capabilities. While helping people understand concepts is beneficial, this is not enough to successfully demonstrate the capabilities in a variety of situations over time. Instead, help leaders build proficiency by executing action plans that involve mindful practice and application of targeted capabilities.
  2. Focus on the few. When formulating action plans, be realistic about how much leaders can take on at a given time. Many driven leaders of STEM organizations want to work on multiple capabilities at once. Trying to build proficiency in multiple capabilities might seem like a good idea, but leaders who attempt it frequently end up frustrated with mediocre results. With all the responsibilities on their plates, get them to focus their action plans on one or two crucial capabilities. Address the other capabilities later.
  3. Drive accountability with data. Since STEM organizations are data-driven by nature, leverage this to ensure accountability. Whether it is qualitative or quantitative, feedback is data. Therefore, establish a baseline for each leader with feedback on needed capabilities and success indicators to monitor how the leader does over time. Then do a “temperature check” to compare this baseline to progress at key milestones. This ongoing feedback helps the leader make needed refinements.

STEM skills are valuable, but the skills alone do not ensure that people who possess them will thrive and stay at the organizations that pay them. Motivating work environments are the difference — they inspire employees to apply their skills and compel them to stay. If you want to create these STEM work environments, leaders with the right capabilities are necessities.

Note: This is an updated version of the article that originally appeared in Forbes.


Ryan Lahti is the managing principal of OrgLeader and author of The Finesse Factor: How to Build Exceptional Leaders in STEM Organizations being published in early 2019. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Female in Medicine, pxhere)