If you want a quick calibration of an organization’s culture, ask about tenure. Tenure is the amount of time a person has worked in a job. You can learn a good deal by trying to understand how tenure works at the company.
Generally speaking, there is an direct relationship between average tenure and your growth potential in a company. That is, the longer people have worked in a place, the harder it is to get ahead. The shorter the average tenure, the easier.
The same applies to the availability of challenge (meaningful work) and resources (the stuff required to get work done). The longer people have been in their jobs, the harder it is for a new team member to get responsibility and autonomy. The shorter the average tenure, the easier it is.
In general, the trade offs are between stability (security) and opportunity (risk). Stable environments encourage incremental improvement, steady growth and embrace the status quo. Organizations that are opportunity-centric focus on innovation, accelerated growth and rapid adaptation.
With each aspect of the organization, you have the chance to assess the likelihood that it’s your kind of place. There are two kinds of questions you’ll want to ask:
- Do I want stability and incremental growth or risk and opportunity?
- Do I want predictability or challenge?
- Am I willing to fail in pursuit of innovation?
- What is the average tenure at the company?
- What is the average tenure in the department I’d be joining?
- Are there obvious paths to greater responsibility and autonomy (job rotation, management training)?
The older an organization is, the higher the tenure will be. Although there are some exceptions, older organizations are less likely to innovate than younger places. A 100-year old manufacturing environment will have a profoundly different culture from a 1-year old biotech startup.
Here are some rules of thumb for thinking about the meaning of average tenure:
- 0 – 2 years: Scrappy, loose, startup-like, most hospitality organizations
- 2 – 4 years: Stabilizing, still young, fast opportunity flow
- 4 – 7 years: Surviving, starting to focus on perfecting the formula
- 7 – 10 years: Maturing, showing signs of repeating cycles of growth and decay
- 10 – 15 years: Mature, full of experts
- 15 and above: Long term stability some risk of age related failure.
Figuring out whether or not an organization is a good fit for you depends on being able to see its core cultural values. Average tenure is a better indicator that the company’s mission statement. Tenure helps you understand what the organization really wants.
It’s also worth noting that sometimes a company has unusually high attrition (or turnover) in some or all of its departments. While there is no rule of thumb, a high level of attrition may indicate that the company culture is toxic. Where average tenure can tell you about the level of opportunity in an organization, it’s definitely not the whole story. There can be enormous opportunity in a terrible place to work. In future articles, we’ll explore the range of things you can tell about a potential employer by examining its turnover and retention performance.