Virgin Galactic HR: powered by people

Challenges are inherent in any start-up, according to Virgin Galactic’s vice president of people, Karen Gifford, who said challenges – especially those which relate to people – are even more pronounced in businesses that are doing something that has never been done before.

“With that comes technological hurdles that require talented employees who can think differently, never accept defeat, and able to accept the innate risk that comes with the world’s first commercial space travel company.

“Finding employees that possess the above traits and a true spirit of adventure has been challenging,” said Gifford, who noted that the British commercial spaceflight company, which is part of the Virgin Group, has grown its workforce significantly over the past 18 months.

“The candidate ‘gate’ to getting hired is tough,” she said.

“We have a rigorous assessment process that ensures we have the right person for the job and the culture. A blend of interactive interviews (social hangout with the team), skill testing, and behavioural based interviewing all ensure that we get it right. It’s too costly to get it wrong.”

When organisations grow rapidly, she said they often become so narrowly focused on the effort of attracting talent, and not enough time on retaining and developing people.

“Managing talent is the only way to thrive and compete for the future,” she said.

Keys to talent management
“One way we do this is to continually manage and incentivise an entrepreneurial spirit by ensuring genuine alliance between the employee’s career goals and what the company needs to have done.

“The manager and employee develop alignment early on so both can thrive and realise both company and personal goals.

“This alignment allows the employee to engage in work that is innovative and creative thus adding value to the company.”

Gifford also said mentoring and coaching are important to succession planning at all levels of Virgin Galactic.

“We have a peer assist program that encourages engagement between key knowledge experts and developing employees,” she said.

“We’ve hired an amazing group of people and harness their knowledge not only to move the project forward daily but also to develop our community of aspiring engineers and professionals for the future.

“Additionally, we look outside the company to the many amazing thought leaders (in and outside our industry) that inspire creativity, new ways of thinking, and make a difference. “Looking at something from a new perspective, a new approach opens the mind to innovation and rejuvenates the spirit.”

Gifford explained that talent development was critical to constantly raising the bar in Virgin Galactic.

“What we are doing is tough, tough because it’s never been done before,” she said.

“Making history is full of continual challenges that require continuous development of skills and stretching each employee beyond personal boundaries.”

A view from the top
Virgin Galactic’s CEO and president, George Whitesides, also said the business has been actively hiring over the past couple years. “Our track record has been great,” he said.

“No real hiring misses because we are very intentional. The assessment of talent is very rigorous and we don’t accept any ‘almost capable’ or managers not being absolutely sure that’s the right person for the job.

“We are ‘all in’ from the beginning,” said Whitesides, who explained that HR supports Virgin Galactic’s commercial goals in three key ways: (1) ensuring that the right people are positioned in the right place at the right time, and then utilised to their fullest potential, (2) building a winning environment that people want to belong to, and (3) fully engaging talent and managing it intelligently.

“Employees are highly motivated. Mostly it is the amazing project they are working on and the opportunity to stretch their capabilities,” said Whitesides, who previously served as Chief of Staff at NASA.

“It is also the environment – a mix high-stakes start-up intensity and passion, along with a community environment that brings family and friends along for the ride. We’re all in it together and that is very powerful.

“Employees want to be fully engaged and have managers that are aligned with their personal development goals. We have a strong ethos as most Virgin companies have around taking care of and developing people to their fullest. We do that on a daily basis.”

Powered by people
HR must be at the centre of the organisation if it is to help the company realise its goals, according to Gifford, who explained that HR is positioned to help drive the business strategy forward within Virgin Galactic by:

  • Playing a key role in defining and building talent on the executive team down through the organisation
  • Hiring the right people at the right time
  • Acting as a consultant and coach to management to help align individual performance with business results
  • Developing managers to drive results through people by honing their leadership skills.

“HR has to be at the centre of this, because an organisation is defined by the collection people and their combined drive and capability to move the business forward,” said Gifford.