Technicians installing 5G cellular antennas for AT&T (Company photo)

To stick around and climb the career ladder, employees have to know there’s one available in the first place.

That’s the takeaway from a conversation between Angela Santone, senior executive vice president of HR for AT&T, and Lydia Dishman, senior editor for growth and engagement at Fast Company, in a From Day One webinar on career growth as a strategy for employee retention.

To be sure, compensation matters. Nearly two out of three U.S. workers who left a job last year cited low pay as the top reason for doing so, according to Pew Research. With inflation at 40-year highs, macroeconomic headwinds are leading some employees to seek out better compensation opportunities.

The runner-up reason for departure, however, is something companies can prioritize in any economy. A third of respondents said the fact that their employer offered no opportunities for advancement was a “major” reason they left a job. Employees who perceive opportunities to learn and grow are nearly three times more likely to be engaged in their work, and 91% of them say it’s either “very” or “extremely” important that their manager encourage learning and experimentation, according to LinkedIn’s most recent Skills Advantage Report.

A lack of advancement opportunities stunts earning potential, noted Dishman. So how can stakeholders better cultivate opportunities for their employees–and bolster retention as a result? Santone is in a position to know, because her company is one of the best in the business in advancing its workers. What makes that happen? In the webinar, presented in partnership with the employee-coaching platform BetterUp, Santone offered her insights.

‘There Are Opportunities for Everyone’

Santone says she knows firsthand how powerful career-development infrastructure can be for retention and leadership. Prior to starting at AT&T in May 2019, Santone was an executive at Turner Broadcasting who had ascended from individual contributor to the head of HR over an 18-year period.

Speaking in a From Day One webinar: Angela Santone, top, senior executive vice president of HR for AT&T, and Lydia Dishman, senior editor for growth and engagement at Fast Company (Image by From Day One)

“I joke and say that I’ve been in HR for a hundred years,” she said. “So it’s been a long journey, but never boring. And now, transitioning from Turner to AT&T, it’s a totally different industry, and a great learning opportunity.” Santone notes that, if infrastructure isn’t yet available to them, employees and managers should proactively curate their own mentorship opportunities.

“I think about individuals that have been [my] formal mentors, but also the ones that have been informal mentors,” said Santone. “Even my mom. I learned from her to be independent, to have my own thought process, to be confident.”

But in the new hybrid workplace, mentorship is easier said than done. “How can [mentorship] possibly unfold in this era of work, where we are asynchronous?” asked Dishman. “Very, very small segments of industries are fully in-person, 100% of the time, working synchronously together. How does that even work now, in this hybrid job market?”

“I don’t know if I actually have the answer, because I think not many do,” said Santone. “But what worked 30 years ago doesn’t work today. Before, you could maybe get away with not having conversations with your employees face-to-face. Now, if you don’t schedule time with them to have a call, or a team meeting, you’re never going to know what they’re doing. You’re never going to know how they’re feeling. And those are the employees who are quick to look at other opportunities.”

People leave managers, not companies,” she added.

AT&T appears to have mentorship and career mapping dialed in. The American Opportunity Index is a new measurement for corporate career advancement, co-published by the Burning Glass Institute, the Schultz Family Foundation, and Harvard Business School’s Managing the Future of Work Project. In it, the 250 largest public companies in America were ranked on criteria related to career growth, upward mobility, and compensation. AT&T came out on top for economic and job opportunity, just ahead of American Express and Cisco Systems.

“At AT&T, fewer than 5% of our positions require college degrees,” noted Santone. “We have over 20 programs that we offer to employees, and a continuous learning culture. There are opportunities for everyone.”

Sweat the Soft Stuff

Soft skills will likely appreciate in value in years to come, Santone said. Companies may want to take on-the-job, soft-skill development opportunities into consideration when weighing hybrid or remote-work policies.

“I worry a little bit about how we maintain the soft skills,” said Santone. “We put such a focus on technical skills, which is obviously incredibly important. I just want to make sure individuals have the ability to share their ideas, have conversations about their careers, and engage. A lot of the kids coming up already have the hard skills.” She said companies will need to pay more attention to how young employees interact interpersonally, and may need additional mentorship or development to close the gaps.

Volunteer work is a big part of the company’s employee engagement, including AT&T Believes, a program of grassroots initiatives to improve local communities (Company photo)

“It’s a skill in and of itself to build in an hour every day for focus time,” noted Dishman, “so that someone doesn't usurp your calendar and stick a meeting in there. I know my prime times for doing certain tasks, but not everybody knows that.” Dishman asked Santone how employees can better advocate for their own development when they’re not always sure what they need next.

Santone says it sometimes starts with saying no.

“No one is going to make you a priority, so first and foremost is having boundaries,” she said. “The older I get, the more I realize how important boundaries are. They matter. If you aren’t willing to set those boundaries, and you’re always saying yes to everything, it really cuts into your time to develop yourself and learn.”

Whether you’re advocating for your own career, or trying to build a culture that encourages your employees to do the same, Santone says leaning into proactive conversations is more important than ever for retention in a hybrid workforce.

“We don’t have a mentality of up-or-out,” said Santone. “When I joined AT&T three years ago, I was completely blown away by how many people come here and have so many different careers at the same company. I always tell the leaders that I talk to about that. You can either keep [employees] where they are, or they’re going to leave the company. If you think they’re that great, I think we want to keep them.”

Nick Wolny is a senior editor at NextAdvisor, in partnership with TIME. He has previously written for Fast Company, Fortune, Business Insider, Entrepreneur Magazine, and OUT Magazine, and was named a “40 under 40” by the Houston Business Journal in 2021.