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"It’s important for HR to think beyond walls of their organisations": Heather Laychak, CPO, The Aerospace Corporation

"It’s important for HR to think beyond walls of their organisations": Heather Laychak, CPO, The Aerospace Corporation


Whether they are ensuring the resiliency of satellite systems or finding a better way to remove dangerous debris from orbit, the aerospace sector is ensuring talent has the opportunity to flourish.

As we know, the tech industry hasn't done a great job hiring women and minorities. The same could be said for aerospace. But there's a difference - the aerospace industry has launched a major initiative, Space Workforce2030, whereby 3,000 paid internships for minority students have been created around the United States. Led by The Aerospace Corporation in Los Angeles, 30 space companies such as Boeing, Northrop, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Slingshot and others are involved.

So far, more than 400 students have signed up from UCLA, USC, Cal State Long Beach, MIT, Georgia Tech, Purdue and other universities. More students are joining every week, for the programme that starts this summer.

Leading the execution of this programme is Heather R. Laychak, Vice President and Chief People Officer, The Aerospace Corporation (pictured above), who brings more than 20 years of HR experience across for‑profit and non-profit companies in industries including defense, academia, retail, and entertainment.

As a strategic advisor to the CEO and executive leadership team, Laychak is responsible for developing and executing the corporation’s HR strategy to achieve business, people, and organisational objectives. She also serves as the management liaison for the Compensation and Personnel Committee of the Board of Trustees, responsible for company-wide compensation and benefits, executive incentive plan management, succession planning, workforce engagement, and cultural climate.

In this interview with HRO’s Aditi Sharma Kalra, Laychak talks about talent challenges unique to the aerospace sector, such as the need for security clearances for staff to come into office, and the successes, such as giving more career opportunities to women and people of colour, and aligning the company mission to broader societal priorities.

Read on for the interview:

Q With more than 20 years of experience in HR in both for profit and non-profit companies, what are some valuable lessons you've learnt on both sides in terms of motivating people for performance?

We all want to know that we make a difference – personally, professionally, in our communities. I believe that every employee shows up to work and wants to do great work and make an impact. It’s important to connect employees to a purpose and show them how their work contributes to the broader mission of the organisation. High performing organisations tend to have a culture committed to continuous feedback which requires strong managers who know how to have authentic, candid, (sometimes difficult), empathic conversations with their people and teams. Also key are recognition and reward programmes that clearly convey, recognise and reward the behaviours (the how) and performance outcomes (the what) that are expected.

Q How did you find yourself in the HR space, and what keeps you glued to it?

I never envisioned that I would end up with a career in HR. But when I think about the varied roles I have had, they all prepared me for where I am today. Business strategies require people and organisational strategies which means that HR plays a critical role in shaping and enabling organisations to achieve their strategic intentions and full potential. We have the incredible and privileged responsibility to ensure our organisations have the workforce, leadership, and culture needed to evolve and sustain an organisation’s distinguished relevancy. It’s also important for HR to think beyond walls of their organisations. A global pandemic, in addition to the racial, social, economic, and political challenges we have faced and continue to face, has forced a new agenda for HR leaders who have an extraordinary opportunity to partner with other organisations to inspire the future workforce and collectively make their industries and companies and communities stronger.

Q In the role of CPO for The Aerospace Corp, an R&D centre for national security space, what are your typical talent opportunities and challenges?

We share many of the same challenges with the tech sector, which is high demand for critical skills and with the added requirement for the majority of our workforce to have security clearances, which requires people to come into the office to do their jobs. And in today’s post-pandemic world, we know that people seek out and make career decisions based on the flexibility that is available. We worried at first that we would see attrition of our cleared talent increase but we haven’t. Our workforce is doing critical work in support of our national security and that mission motivates our people, and it means looking at how we recognise their commitment and provide the most optimal work environment.

Probably the biggest challenge that we are focused on is ensuring we have a diverse technical workforce now and in the future given the insufficient STEM pipeline. This is why we initiated Space Workforce 2030 - so that we hold ourselves and industry accountable for increasing the collective diversity in our technical workforce, and leader demographics by 2030, while also striving to reach and inspire 5mn students each year to pursue STEM degrees and careers.

Q Tell us about some of the proudest milestones you've achieved in managing talent acquisition, DEI, L&D, labour relations, and more for the organisation.

• People acquisition – We have faced unprecedented, record-breaking hiring over the last two years, and last year, we achieved the highest percentage of diverse hires in our history.

• DEI – In 2022, our CEO worked to bring 31 space companies together to form Space Workforce 2030. This first-of-its-kind initiative is an industrywide, collaborative effort to increase diversity and representation in our technical workforces over the long-term.

• People and organisation development – Our leadership philosophy is that every person in any role at any level has the potential to demonstrate leadership. We are committed to early identification, development, diversity, and transparency when it comes to high potentials and succession candidates.

• Engagement & culture – We pulse our employees twice annually to assess their engagement and recently introduced a culture survey to ascertain our cultural strengths and “secret sauce” and where we might need to focus our attention on new or different cultural behaviours aligned to our strategic intentions and employee value proposition.

• We are very forward leaning when it comes to DEI which makes me so proud to work at this company. Our CEO and Board walk the talk. DEI is embedded in everything we do.

• Establishing a robust workforce analytics capability. Metrics are key. They inform your strategies, programmes, processes, and investments. They enable you to bring solutions to the business and your people.

Q So far, in its inaugural year, 900 minority students have signed up for paid internships under Space Workforce 2030 (SWF 2030). What was the business need that led to the making of this initiative, and has the progress been as you planned?

The business need has always been present. America’s national security requires strong capability in STEM fields and industries, yet the number of students studying a STEM discipline in the United States is lagging behind other countries, and the representation of women and people of colour studying STEM disciplines is even worse. The Space Workforce 2030 companies established the National Space Intern (NSI) programme to create equitable pathways to prepare, develop, and mentor diverse students for careers in STEM. Collectively, our companies will build a diverse STEM student pipeline by providing experiential learning, exposure, and experience to ensure the space industry workforce reflects the diversity of America.

We are pleased with our progress. In our inaugural year, we had more than 1,000 students register, with our inaugural SWF2030 NSI cohort kicking off this summer.

Q With STEM sectors traditionally making slow progress on diversity in the workplace, what can employers do better to support diversity in these industries?

Employers need to cast a wider net. We cannot return to the same schools and educational programmes every year and expect them to provide larger numbers of diverse employees. We need to push ourselves to look further for applicants, and to also include large diverse underrepresented groups of people in our applicant pool for every position.

Q You're currently employing 4,600 diverse and talented people - how do you ensure the organisation's values are communicated and lived across the workforce, through its scientists, engineers, managers, and more?

We are laser focused on a culture of inclusion with attention to key practices, like looking at work routines or processes to make inclusion an integral part of the way our employees work. We also set clear expectations among our managers that they will exhibit inclusive leadership behaviours, and we reward inclusive leaders for their efforts and role modelling of key values and behaviours.

Finally, we have aligned the mission of our organisation to the broader equity issues faced by the community. This includes reviewing our services, outreach and programmes through the lens of inclusion to carry out our mission in culturally relevant ways.

Q One of your strengths in this role is to manage a variety of stakeholders - apart from the internal stakeholders. Could you share your advice on how HR leaders can lead such conversations, and elevate HR further into speaking the business language?

As Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” At Aerospace, enabling a culture of trust, inclusion, and belonging where everyone can bring their best to the customer’s toughest problems is critical to maximise performance. Recognising that “our people are our business” helps to facilitate HR’s value as a strategic partner when we’re having those conversations with external parties.

I find that it is important that HR professionals are deeply knowledgeable about their organisation’s business, including bringing the financial acumen needed to elevate their impact.

There is no doubt that the HR has a vital role to play in tackling the most important challenges businesses are facing right now. As HR professionals, we help our organisations succeed when we take intelligent risks, are change agile, and build a financially accountable culture that supports our business model.

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Lead image / Provided (featuring the interviewee)

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