Empowering Employees: Cultivating Career Advancement From Within

BY Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | May 17, 2024

“External hires are practical if you need to hire immediately. The market right now is booming because we have so much talent. But it doesn’t solve a long-term issue, and if we don’t address the long term issue, it’s soon going to become a short-term concern.”

This was the warning from Steph Ricks, senior account executive and partnership development leader at education tech platform Strategic Education, at From Day One’s live conference in Washington, D.C. Failure to retain talent, failure to provide them with advancement opportunities, whether vertical or lateral or some combination of the two, is an existential threat to a company’s potential.

At the event, Ricks and her colleagues in HR and talent development assembled for a panel discussion on how employers can create opportunity within organizations by boosting internal mobility. The consensus was this: democratize, market, prioritize, and measure.

Opening Mobility Opportunities to All

Unless the direction of travel is upward, it may be tough for employees to envision the ways their career might go. Examples likely exist in their current company, yet many remain unaware of the multidirectional career paths that surround them.

Workers have to be able to see what’s available, says Terri Hatcher, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at global IT provider NTT Data Services. To show employees what’s available, the company uses an AI-driven talent-management system that can turn employees on to open roles that suit their skills. Hatcher also hosts storytelling events. In one recurring series, women in the company tell their stories about their career growth. “Specifically,” she said, “they talk about the programs in our company and the tools they’ve used that have helped them grow.”

A workforce development strategy, to be truly effective, must be democratic. By analyzing the demographics of workers advancing up the ladder at NTT, Hatcher discovered that some segments were being excluded, and it had become evident in the composition of leadership teams. The middle management layer was the bottleneck. “We noticed that people in middle management were not advancing, and women were not advancing, so we took hold of that. There is no way we’re going to be able to see a difference in senior leadership if we don’t see anything change in middle management.”

Encouragement also has to come from people managers, not least because they have the influence enough to ignite or dampen a career. Hatcher found that even though training programs were open to all, and women knew that they could nominate themselves, they weren’t quick to do so. “You might open up a program to everyone, but you’ve got to really market that program to everyone,” she said. “Your managers have to be in on it, they have to be encouraging people to get out there and get engaged. Because sometimes people don’t feel like it’s for them for whatever reason.”

Maryland-based medical network, Adventist HealthCare had run its emerging leaders program for several years to warm reception, but in 2019, Brendan Johnson, the organization’s SVP of human resources, examined the demographic makeup of the program cohorts and found that the program participants did not reflect the company’s workforce. So they opened the program to everyone in the company – all 6,000 of them.

The panelist spoke in a session titled "Creating Opportunity Within: How Employers Are Boosting Internal Mobility"

“That completely changed the way that we made sure that everyone was aware of opportunities.” With that, leadership opportunities were no longer about who you know, but about how much you want to grow. Three years later, said Johnson, the demographics of the leadership program looked like the demographics of the workforce.

Without clear expectations for high performance, leadership teams naturally sort themselves homogeneously, says Johnson. “If you don’t have a strong and very objective way to measure top performers, top performers end up being the people that look like your presidents and look like your vice presidents.”

Knowing the right people and being exposed to new functions and departments can unlock tremendous opportunity. “I don’t think that any of us in this room would find our next opportunity by applying for a position,” said Ricks of Strategic Education. “I think it’s going to come down to our networks.”

Carrie Theisen, the SVP of total rewards at Fannie Mae noticed that in her organization there were certain barriers to mobility, one in particular that the company had inadvertently erected: Pay grade bumps came only with promotions but as Johnson reminded us “not everybody wants to grow up and be a leader.” So Fannie Mae changed the pay structure so that individual contributors had the potential to make as much as people managers. To market opportunities, Theisen chose to link career progression with the company’s employer value proposition, live well, and build the employee experience in the service of advancement.

Prioritize Internal Moves

One of the simplest tips came from Steph Ricks: give internal hires priority. She describes the standard practice as her former company, Wayfair. “When a [requisition] went live, we would interview anyone internal who applied for the role. If we weren’t satisfied, then we offered interviews to any employee referrals. If we didn’t find the talent we needed there, then it was open externally.”

Theisen’s advice was to plan well into the future. “Succession planning is most effective when it starts at the top,” said Theisen. “We present our succession plans to our board quarterly. They include for every key role across the organization and the key successors. Are they ready now? Are they emerging?” She found that the board was eager to prioritize diverse representation at all levels, and this would be her contribution.

Tracking movement and paying attention to changes over time, that’s how you get better at internal mobility, panelists said. At Adventist, Johnson reports quarterly to the board on internal versus external promotions. He aims for more than 40%, and in the last five years, he’s been able to report 50%–60% internal hires.

And he has his own measures: “We shifted last year from measuring employee engagement to measuring employee fulfillment.” Engagement, he said, is about what the employee is doing for the company, hedging the question, “will you still be here in three years?” But by measuring fulfillment instead, Johnson hopes to shift the onus, and learn whether the company is doing enough to retain its workers.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in the Economist, the BBC, The Washington Post, Quartz, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife.


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