Keeping Talented Defenders: Why Culture Matters in the Australian Defence Ecosystems Retention Challenge. 

The Australian defence ecosystem is facing a challenge in attracting and retaining skilled staff in a highly competitive environment. No matter what the ambition is to grow domestic capability, many organisations – both in industry and within government – will find that they simply don’t have the people to make their plans a reality.  And those lucky enough to recruit great people will have the challenge of retaining them in an increasingly demanding environment where not enough people have to do all the work.   According to a report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in May 2020, the turnover rate of civilian staff in the Australian Department of Defence increased from 13.4% in 2014-15 to 14.4% in 2018-19.  I am reasonably confident that this figure will be repeated in commercial organisations too, and I know that some are reporting 25% plus. Additionally, Infrastructure Australia has estimated a workforce shortage of 70,000 engineers, scientists, and architects out to 2025.  That is a big, big gap.

To overcome this challenge, perhaps a change in paradigm is necessary. Simply working people harder and putting them under more pressure as deadlines approach is clearly not a sustainable solution.

Instead, there needs to be a shift in mindset, with more focus on building a positive team culture and increasing productivity, rather than just work effort and full-time equivalent (FTE) numbers. Studies have shown that a positive team culture, where employees feel valued and engaged, can lead to increased productivity, better retention, and better outcomes.

This is probably new to no one…..(to use a TLA – NSS). There are many models and books on this subject available to help build a positive team culture (The Culture Code, Dare to Lead, and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team are some of the more well-known), and any leader worth their salt will undoubtedly have read at least one.

However, reading the book is the easy bit (for me, listening to them is easier still). The hard bit is actually making something happen, and then making change stick. It requires huge energy and effort to implement these changes and shift the mindset towards a more productive and engaged workforce.

The billion-dollar question is (and I know that the phrase is million-dollar, but that’s inflation for you), is it realistic for a busy organisation, such as those in the Australian defence industry, to find the additional energy needed to make this shift? Is a DIY approach, with no expert support, as realistic as trying to capture a drop bear in the outback, or getting a parking spot outside the CBD office in rush hour? To actually be successful in changing a culture, it probably requires external help.

Our real concern at nXus People is that we have been seeing an increasing number of organisations struggling to breaking point rather than taking the plunge into real culture change. This approach not only wastes effort, time and money, but it also pushes the boundaries of the duty of care owed to employees. Too often, we see under pressure leaders push their people beyond their limits, breaking them in the process.

The good news is that more and more businesses are recognising the importance of culture change and are declaring, “My name is… and I have a culture problem.” These companies are finally asking for help, and this is where the journey towards positive change begins. At nXus People, we love it when we get to support these organisations and help them build a positive team culture that fosters employee engagement, productivity, and retention.

Let us work together to change the paradigm in the Australian defence industry and create a sustainable future for our teams and businesses.