Change equals risk. That’s why Jenn Mann initially rejected a job offer from SAS, for a human resources generalist position. Six months later, she reconsidered.
Almost two decades later, today she is vice president of Human Resources at the analytics software firm, responsible for leading a global HR team.
“I left a director level leadership position in HR at another company to join SAS in a non-management role,” Mann explained of her early dilemma. “Eight years ago I debated again about pursuing the VP role, doubting myself. The level of risk gets higher as you go up. Then I remembered what we always tell our kids: ‘If you think you can’t, think again.’”
Mann and her team serve as stewards of the SAS culture for a diverse workforce of more than 14,000 employees worldwide. That HR vision has landed SAS on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list every year for the list’s 18-year run.
Aimed at fostering creativity, innovation and work-life balance, SAS offers benefits ranging from onsite childcare and medical services to on-staff ergonomics specialists and even a hair salon.
“We’re pragmatic; we do our due diligence in exploring potential programs and their sustainability,” Mann said. “With each proposal we ask, ‘Where is the data to back this up?’
“For example, our onsite pharmacy is convenient for employees, and helps us control one of our largest expenses, which is medical. Those savings can be put into other employee programs. It’s a total philosophy, which is more than just competitive compensation. It’s a hard balance, and we look at it every year.”
Communication is key to the process; in fact, many programs are the result of feedback from employees.
“We look at how our decisions impact employees, and then we’re transparent on how we came to them. Transparency is in our company’s DNA,” Mann said.
“Our CEO does quarterly webcasts, and our executives hold town halls that are broadcast to all employees. It’s authentic, real-time communication, and employees can submit questions right then. We even have The Hub, which is like Facebook for SAS employees.”
Mann says investing money in employee programs is not always intuitive for the business-minded leaders of some companies. But at SAS, her job is made simpler by the company’s employees-first point of view.
“It all starts with the vision of an incredible leader,” she said. “Our core values began on day one at SAS with CEO Dr. (Jim) Goodnight, who knew that success depends on a stable and engaged workforce. There’s mutual respect.
“SAS was ahead of its time when it comes to workplace cultures. Even after 40 years, SAS has a culture that many new companies today are trying to emulate.”
The effects of the SAS culture on employee creativity, Mann says, are proven by 39 years of continued revenue growth — the company’s annual revenues exceed $3 billion — renewable customer streams and high ratings on both customer and employee surveys.
What SAS has, and Mann cultivates, is three-part:
“One, meaningful work that our employees are passionate and excited about,” she said. “Two, employees are empowered to make decisions. I tell them, ‘If something doesn’t sound right, ask questions.’ And three, our work environment and the programs we provide are there to make it easier for employees to focus on their work. The benefits tend to get a lot of attention externally, but to our employees they are not the most important; meaningful work trumps.”
Mann’s department vets 60,000 incoming résumés each year, in a quest to acquire the very best in talent. Turnover here stands at 3 to 4 percent, in an industry where 20 percent is the norm.
“We’re noted among (Fortune’s) Best Workplaces for Millennials; that’s a testament,” Mann said. “At the same time, our average employee age is 45 or 46. Although we sometimes communicate a bit differently, it’s a wonderful thing to see four generations working together.”
Forty-two percent of SAS employees are women, which marks “incredible progress” to Mann.
“In the early days of my career, before SAS, there was a lack of acknowledgement that as a female employee, you might also want to be a wife and mom,” she said. “At SAS we look at ways to create flexibility.”
SAS is home to the Women’s Initiatives Network, and recently partnered with SoarTriangle to help close the funding gap for female entrepreneurs.
As a woman at SAS, “I’ve always felt I am a respected contributor,” Mann said. “Many of my mentors over the years have been men.
“The higher up you go, the lonelier it can get; you get less feedback. You need to find a broad network of people who will tell you the truth, even if you sometimes don’t want to hear it.
“That has included different people at different times in my career, but the one person who has been a steady for me is my mom. She has three kids and was a director in the Duke Graduate School, and I watched her balance it all gracefully. She tells me, ‘You have to keep some semblance of yourself. Work can’t be your only identity. Don’t let work take your soul, and keep your family and friendships intact.’”
Mann says she’s most impressed by the people who go out of their way to help others, no matter their roles.
“No matter what you do, do it to the fullest,” she said. “Take it seriously, and give 100 percent. There are risks every day. But push yourself out of your comfort zone, and you’ll survive. It might even be fun.”
Family: Husband Jason; children Conner, 17, and Gracie, 15
Lives in: Cary
Alma mater: Bachelor’s degree in psychology and business, Meredith College
Serves: HR Advisory Board at NCSU’s Poole College of Management
Awards: 2015 Chief Human Resources Officer of the Year, HRO Today
Off-duty: Pilates, family dinners
Favorite saying: “If you think you can’t, think again.”
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