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At Chariot Solutions, Engagement Requires an ‘Inspirational Environment’

Founder and CEO Michael Rappaport talks with ESM about how he keeps turnover low and morale high among his pool of top-tier talent

It always gets our attention when we receive a press release from a company touting its commitment to employee engagement, so we followed up on a recent release from Chariot Solutions to find out why.

The company is a software application development, consulting and training firm specializing in open source technologies, enterprise and mobile application development based in Fort Washington, PA. Founder and CEO Michael J. Rappaport had in interesting reply to our question that’s indicative of what’s happening with many companies requiring highly skilled employees.

“Chariot Solutions is known for the deep technical chops of our consultants and our excellent track record of successful projects,” explains Rappaport. “Our greatest challenge has always been acquiring new talent. Our growth is limited by supply. So I want top-tier software architects outside Chariot to see how great an environment we have so that they’ll consider joining us.”

The company currently has 60 employees serving a customer base of roughly 100, and Rappaport believes he could expand more rapidly if he could find more of the high level developers he needs. (Do you know any Scala developers?)

It’s About Consistency

So is that it, we asked him: Is employee engagement only about retention and recruitment?

“The bottom line is that Chariot’s brand is all about quality and consistency,” says Rappaport. “What separates us from others in software development is project success. Our record is off the charts, especially for this industry, and the obvious reason is the caliber of our consultants and our incredibly low turnover. Our clients are the beneficiaries of this, and our commitment to employee engagement is behind it all.”

Being a relatively small company, it’s sometimes easier to address engagement, so we asked how he implements his engagement strategy. “Our business practices are built around our formula for success, which includes hiring exclusively ‘A’ players that fit our culture (team/family culture), keeping them challenged, engaged and constantly learning, listening to them, following their lead and treating them exceptionally well – being supportive, respectful, generous and understanding, genuinely caring about them and their happiness (family culture, work/life balance.)”

Rappaport says the difference between the top software architects and the rest is significant, and that the secret has been out for many years, making it imperative for organizations like his to create an inspirational environment. There is a plus side, he explains: Having a staff made up of many of the best and brightest technical minds around makes it possible to attack complex software development projects with fewer people.

Communication & Education

Rappaport says he fosters frequent communication with the entire company, typically delivered through regularly scheduled company-wide meetings.

“The more information our employees have about the company and its current challenges, the more likely they are to come up with a great idea or solution. That has been one of the keys to our success so far.” He says he even shares profit/loss numbers with them.

“At Chariot, learning has always been an area of focus. It’s typically at or near the top of the list of what’s most important to our employees. We send our people to conferences of their choice, in addition to the best local tech conference, Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise (ETE), which is organized by Chariot, hosted in Philadelphia and attended by over 500 local technology professionals each year.”

Rappaport admits his company “doesn’t score as high on this as in the other areas…yet. We recognize and reward employees when they reach milestones with the company (i.e., 5/10 years), and sometimes when they do something truly special, but there’s a lot more that we can do. One of the problems is that so many of the people at Chariot are standouts that it’s truly difficult to figure out whom to recognize. Everyone is so damn good that so far I’ve only been successful in recognizing and rewarding the entire team.”

“As great as our consultants are, they want to get better,” says Rappaport. “They are ultimately measured by how happy they make their clients. So far they have a near perfect record. I am truly lucky to have them.”

Discipline & Listening

As to having a formal Engagement strategy, Rappaport made it clear this has been more about culture to him than a formal process. For one thing, he admitted, he didn’t know there was any formal science or field related to Engagement. “The best thing I’ve done over the past 12 years at Chariot is listen. From day one, my initial team felt strongly that hiring exclusively top talent would be our strongest competitive advantage. They convinced me that hiring discipline, combined with project discipline (only accepting projects for which we are a great fit and thus more likely to succeed), would set us apart. And they were right.”

He adds, “They also taught me what’s most important to the happiness of the top-tier technologist, beginning with creating a challenging environment in which they’re constantly learning, engaged and appreciated. This is a true win/win, as it leads to strong retention, which in turn leads to consistent project success.”

Although Rappaport says it’s not always easy to measure the effectiveness of an employee engagement strategy, “we have strong indicators that it’s working very well. For one, Chariot has an extraordinarily low turnover rate for a technology company. On top of that, we participated in the Top Philly Workplace competition held by the local newspapers and twice, in 2010 and this year. The results are based on surveys completed by all employees. We finished No. 1 both years for companies in the Philadelphia area with 50 to 150 employees.”

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