Executive Spotlight: Carolyn Brownawell, MITRE HR Director, on Hiring and Retaining the Right Employees

Carolyn Brownawell
Carolyn Brownawell

For the last 25 years, Carolyn Brownawell has been with the MITRE Corp.—a not-for-profit organization that manages research and development centers for the government.

During her tenure, Brownawell has worn many hats, most recently serving as executive director of human resources.  

In an in-depth interview with ExecutiveBiz, Brownawell discusses what makes MITRE a unique place to work with many long-term employees, the various benefits of a phased retirement program, and the organization’s newly developed performance metrics.

ExecutiveBiz:  Can you describe your position and the human resources team you are in charge of?

Brownawell:  I started at MITRE as a compensation analyst.  In my time with the organization, I’ve managed a number of areas including compensation, benefits, and HR information technology.  I currently oversee our HR business partner and talent acquisition functions —totaling about 45 people.  I also serve in an integration role around all of our HR management functions, helping to coordinate, communicate and share HR knowledge and best practices across our entire HR team of about 120 people.

I’ve spent a lot of my time at MITRE working on development of the HR organization. About 12 years ago, we put in place an HR business partner model, where each of our business units has a dedicated business partner organization to meet their needs.

I also manage the executive compensation process, working with the Compensation Committee of our board of trustees. That has been a fascinating journey.

 

ExecutiveBiz: What is the most interesting work you have conducted during your long career at MITRE?

Brownawell: In the last couple of years, we developed a set of enterprise performance metrics. This entailed creating an organizational “scorecard” that provides a framework for evaluating company, as well as individual executive performance.

The scorecard goes well beyond the traditional financial and operational measures of corporate health.  We’ve incorporated measurements of customer engagement and outcomes, effective program and resource management, as well as employee engagement.

As part of developing the metrics, we’ve embarked on a process to assess all of our internal work based on the extent to which our contributions provide “game changing” solutions to our customers.  This is really interesting, and very difficult to measure, but over time, as we refine our measurement methodology, it will help us to ensure we are providing the highest possible value to our customers.  We’re in a process now of learning how to measure, and how to refine those measurements. The metrics also contribute to the integrity of our executive compensation process, since we are beginning to tie rewards to performance against the measures.

We’re also in the midst of a transformation here at MITRE toward a more customer outcome-driven model, and this is going to impact all areas of our HR service delivery over time. We’ve brought in a new chief HR officer from the outside, Karen Quinn-Quintin, who is helping to align our HR strategies with the MITRE’s strategic priorities.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  What goes into figuring out an executive’s compensation, and what is your role in that process? How is it different at MITRE than it is at other firms? 

Brownawell:  I serve as the liaison to the compensation committee of the board of trustees. In that role, I work with the committee as well as our third-party executive compensation consultant to assess the competitive external market and ensure we have reward programs that help us to attract and retain the type of quality executive talent we need.

I have a role in integrating the organizational and individual officer assessments, and pulling together all of those pieces to help the CEO and the board of trustees sort through the data and make well-grounded decisions around executive rewards.

At MITRE, we have to meet a very high standard of due diligence around all of our executive compensation processes.  We’ve put in place very strong governance processes on the part of our board of trustees to ensure that we’re meeting the reasonable pay standards for an organization in our industry.  We’ve worked to build a very high degree of rigor into the process in the past couple of years.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  Where do you draw your talent from? 

Brownawell: More than half of our hires come from employee referrals, followed by Internet job board applications and college recruiting.

MITRE tends to focus on mid-career hires, just given the nature of our work. But we’ve recently ramped up our college recruiting. For all hires, we look for staff who are mission-oriented, have deep domain or technical expertise and are multi-disciplined so they can be moved across projects and organizations.

One way we differ from others is that we don’t hire solely for the project or the contract.  We hire people who can be leveraged across many areas at MITRE. We tend to retain people much longer, and we actually look for people who can contribute to MITRE over the course of a career as opposed to hiring to a particular task or project.  The majority of our positions require security clearances, and as most people in this space know, that bring its own recruiting challenges.

About 70 percent of our staff come from industry, 15 percent from former government or military organizations, agencies or the military services, and another 10 percent directly from college campuses.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  Some companies offer high salaries, others offer strong benefits.  How do you communicate the full scope of your compensation to employees? 

Brownawell:  We have a very competitive total compensation package at MITRE. One difference for us is that we generally deliver our compensation in the form of base salary, whereas many other companies deliver their compensation in the form of base salary plus an annual bonus.  Our base salaries are designed to be competitive with “total cash,” or base plus bonus, in other companies.

We are particularly strong with respect to our benefits packages. We have a strong retirement program (which includes a phased-retirement option). We also have flexible, paid time-off benefits, and other differentiators like civic time, which many of our employees use to give back to the community—particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas.

Another major strength of our benefits program is our commitment to education. We provide world-class educational reimbursement, and we have many educational opportunities available internally. We also provide bonuses for employees who earn their masters or doctorate, and we have a special program called the “Accelerated Graduate Degree Program” where individuals who are accepted into the program can pursue their advanced degree and take one paid day off a week, for studying, as well as receiving educational reimbursement.

Our communications challenge is to make sure that employees have a full view of their total reward package. We maintain an online site on our intranet that is tailored for each employee, which gives them a real-time look at their total rewards. We push this information out several times a year, as well as during our annual benefits open enrollment period.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  You mentioned the phased-retirement program.  I was wondering if you could explain the program and how it boosts the employee retention rate at your company.

Brownawell: Our Phased Retirement Program is unique.  We introduced the program in the early 1980s.  We recognized that it’s often difficult for people to make the leap directly from working into retirement status — many employees don’t really want to “go cold turkey” when they retire. So we put in this program, which is a flexible option to phase into retirement.

If you have at least 10 years of service with the organization and you’re aged 59½ or more, you can participate. In the program, employees can transition from a full-time to a part-time schedule, and withdraw assets from the retirement plan without incurring IRS penalties to supplement their income.

It allows people to gradually reduce the hours they work each week while shifting toward full-time retirement.

Click Here, to read an executive spotlight with Mark Kontos, MITRE CFO.

 

ExecutiveBiz:  What lessons have you learned in management positions that have helped you thrive at MITRE? 

Brownawell:  When I was a new leader, I was pretty convinced that I knew what I was doing. The more time I spend in a leadership role, the more I’m convinced that I don’t know as much as I thought. This has actually been a very valuable insight as I’ve taken on different roles serving the organization, as it allows me to always be in a listening and questioning mode.

Over time, I’ve learned about the importance of partnering with your teams and your colleagues.  It’s critical to understand everyone on the team as an individual, they each have unique abilities, and you really have to appreciate what drives each individual, in order to leverage the whole team and produce quality work.

Another lesson I’ve learned is to hire people who are smarter and more talented than you are.  Then, trust them to do their jobs; don’t micromanage them.

And one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to be flexible, especially with respect to managing people.  There are a lot of people out here who will tell you what you want to hear, but not many who can deliver consistently while also maintaining collegial and collaborative working relationships with the people around them.  And those are the employees who are the gems.  Those are the ones you want to get on your team and keep on your team.

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