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.


Making Professional Development a Personalized Experience

Today’s workforce craves an added value experience and personal recognition, especially in the culture of hybrid and remote work. But how can businesses tailor development when everyone is so busy and in many cases spread all over?As Bravely founder and CEO, Sarah Sheehan has learned over her career, each person is motivated by something different, and that plays a big role into how to approach professional development.“We all struggle with different challenges as individuals, like what we’re bringing from our personal lives, and how that impacts how we show up at work.”Sheehan was one of four panelists at From Day One’s Dallas conference. Paul O’Donnell, former business editor of the Dallas Morning News, moderated.Development is like training a muscle that employees can use the rest of their career, Sheehan says. As a coaching company, Bravely works with employees at Zillow, Pinterest, Autodesk, and many more, of different sizes and industries.“The results have been incredible,” she said. “95% of people say that they have had a mindset shift and feel more positive about their organization in their role, which to me is the mic-drop worthy stat.”However, most of the tools out there lack a holistic approach. For example, within many manager training sessions, a whopping 70% of information is lost in 24 hours and 90% is gone within a week—unless it’s reinforced with post application tools, says Sheehan. “Coaching is the perfect post application tool,” she said. Leveraging Technology and Good ManagersPanelist Mark Benton is VP of HR corporate functions at McKesson, a medical equipment and supply company of over 50,000 employees, 500 of which are on his HR team, says the biggest challenge they’re facing is building digital literacy as a tool.“Our goal by the end of the year is to get everybody 30% more proficient in being digital in the way that they work,” he said. In essence, he’s hoping to encourage employees to use digital tools like AI and ChatGPT to augment 30% of their work day. McKesson has personalized this experience by creating its own internal version of ChatGPT.As employees use these tools more regularly to automate what can be automated, they are developing best practices for using the digital tools, which is a skill most employees will need to have.Another area of focus for Benton and anyone in HR is managers—specifically hiring the right people for the job and making sure expectations are clear. “Any of us here are in the lifelong pursuit of making sure that manager quality is good,” he said.Paul O'Donnell of Dallas Morning News moderated the panel of industry leaders While companies should always provide personalized development for its managers, not everyone is adept at being a good manager. “Sometimes there’s just nothing we can do to save them from themselves. We can have all the great training programs, we can put all the right leadership models, we can have good performance management, and then they just don’t do it,” Benton said.HR should do its part to be stewards of the culture, he added, offering a good example of how managers should be managing.Encouraging Constructive FeedbackIn global companies like JPMorgan Chase, panelist Amit Sharma, executive director of talent and career development experience, says that there is a lot of data available from employees. The question is, how can companies potentially leverage data for employees’ development?Further, considering the diversity across the organization and the many markets and cultures of operation, how do we ensure consistency in our offerings and also meet different needs, where they exist?“I think an area across the industry that we can focus more on is constructive feedback,” Sharma said. “Peer to peer constructive feedback overall I think is an area where we can do a lot more. We’re good at giving accolades. But how good are we really at giving feedback that’s constructive?”For example, says Sharma, with all the company calls, do we seek feedback from others on the call? Ask them if we came across clearly and consistently? What could we have done differently?Another area Sharma feels is important to help personalize employee development is networking. Reaching out to colleagues and peers who could guide them and be a one-on-one resource for learning and growth. Sharma once had a coach who advised him to make a list of several important people within the company to talk to regularly, plus several people outside of the company to talk to regularly. This helps to open doors and build relationships.Self-Paced LearningPanelist Jennifer Chopelas, head of HR at Merlin Entertainments, spoke about the company’s new program Ticket to Lead aimed at helping leaders build skills.“Especially after Covid as we rebuilt our teams, what really became apparent was that we had several young managers who were trying their best but didn’t have the skillset yet,” she said.Ticket to Lead is a six-week long global cohort with self-paced learning. People are busy, but they want professional development. Self-paced learning has been a good way to bridge the gap.After running the pilot program, they saw 91% engagement and there was a 21% increase in their confidence. “They also stated that 84% of them felt like their growth had been accelerated as a leader, because we really were investing in them.”This kind of skill-building is crucial, Chopelas says, as they rely on managers to drive performance. And it’s those same managers who can help employees receive a personalized development experience. But managers must see that in company leadership.“Our leaders need to be the ones standing up and showing all of those new skills that are required in this new workplace,” she said. “If you cannot build a connection and trust with your team, you cannot give them feedback or coach them. And that has to be the mentality. And it has to come from the top, they have to be demonstrating those qualities.”Ultimately, they must be vulnerable, transparent, and build trust, so managers and employees will follow suit.Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter.

Carrie Snider | June 06, 2024

Building Upon Workplace Culture Through Recognition, Inclusion, and Belonging

Railroads are not traditionally considered an industry welcoming to female workers, yet at BNSF Railway, women are seeing a future in railroading.Kalisha Holland, chief diversity and inclusion officer and general director of talent acquisition at BNSF Railway, says that employee resource groups play a crucial role in fostering a culture of belonging. BNSF has 10 of these groups, but “we’ve taken it a step further,” said Holland during an executive panel conversation at From Day One’s Dallas conference.Holland and fellow panelists discussed the topic “Building Upon Workplace Culture Through Recognition, Inclusion, and Belonging,” where they shared best practices for workplace belonging.Creating Opportunities for AllIn addition to plentiful ERG offerings, BNSF Railway has diversity councils across its entire network that allow union employees and management to “team up to not only work together to spread the message of diversity and inclusion, but also share our initiatives, talk through our resources, and act as sounding boards for things that might go unnoticed,” she said.The diversity councils have made BNSF more welcoming for all employees, says Holland. She noted that “there’s not representation across genders” in the transportation field, so the company created groups designed to help women “feel like they are supported, giving them mentorship opportunities, making sure they have someone they can go to if they feel uncomfortable, or if they just want a place to unwind and give their honest feedback.”Holland said the goal is to “spread the message that people at our company all have an opportunity to reach their full potential and can come to work every day and be their authentic selves, know that they're valued, and that they are in a safe space.”The security field has traditionally been seen as male-dominated, but more than 73% of Allied employees are women. Part of the reason is the company’s emphasis on career development, says Kimberly Ardo-Eisenbeis, vice president of human resources and recruiting at Allied Universal Security Services.“We offer robust training for all of our employees,” she said. “You don’t have to be a security professional to start with us. We’ll grow you to be one.” Allied employees are taught an ‘I Care’ approach to leadership, which Ardo-Eisenbeis said “is really about meeting our employees where they’re at, being flexible, being responsive, being open.” For example, Allied offers flexible scheduling, which is “nice for our female population,” Ardo-Eisenbeis said.Attention to DetailInclusion also comes in the form of asking questions to get it right. Kaanji Irby, the director of diversity and inclusion for Signet Jewelers, is used to having her first name mispronounced. “I’ve been called everything from Kanga to Congo,” she said.That’s why she appreciated it when a leader she’s worked with began every introduction with, “Hello, my name is Rich, can you please teach me how to say your name?”The panelists spoke to the topic "Building Upon Workplace Culture Through Recognition, Inclusion, and Belonging" in DallasIrby told moderator Christine Perez, editor of D CEO magazine, that she likes to share this story because “we all feel a connection to our names. So being in a space and working alongside a leader who intentionally took that time to make sure that he established that connection, and as the leader set the tone for everyone that he communicated with, I think is a true example of creating an inclusive environment.”Getting Involved in CommunityArdo-Eisenbeis says that Allied Universal Security Services empowers employees to do volunteer work in their communities. For example, the Allied Midwest team developed its For You Campaign, in which employees volunteer at a local food band or school.“That creates a culture of belonging,” Ardo-Eisenbeis said. “They feel seen, they feel heard. They’re building in their communities.”Employees volunteering in the community can increase retention and productivity, but it's essential to do it year-round rather than have one big annual event, says Michal Alter, co-founder and CEO of Visit.org.Alter says Visit.org corporate partners typically do weekly events in the community, as well as monthly events to celebrate different observances and international days for ERGs or new employee onboarding.Visit.org regularly surveys participants in these types of events. According to the most recent survey of 40,000 responders, 70% said that the event “had a major impact on their sense of belonging to the company,” Alter said. “The second thing that we saw is that 90% of employees asked their employer to do more of these events.”Measuring the ImpactA genuinely inclusive environment goes beyond looking at race and gender, says Adrian Seligman, executive board member and CCO of the Top Employers Institute. The company has “started getting into other areas that are a little more difficult” because success is more challenging to measure.One of these areas is family-friendly policies, such as parental leave, which is less widespread in the United States than in other nations, says Seligman. He said South Korea is leading the way in this area, with new parents getting 54 weeks of fully paid leave.Making sure neurodiverse job candidates and employees feel welcome is also a crucial part of inclusion, says Seligman.“There are individuals who traditionally struggle with our standard recruitment processes who can really excel in some roles,” he said. “There’s just amazing talent out there, but how do we set up our workplaces to include talent like that?” This is the work the panelists continue to push forward.Mary Pieper is a freelance writer based in Mason City, Iowa.

Mary Pieper | June 04, 2024

How a Giant Retailer Is Transforming Its Talent Strategy to Stay Ahead of the Competition

13,000 company-operated and franchise-operated stores, plus two store support centers, a direct-support team and indirect support: that’s the company Treasa Bowers was recruited to.Bowers is the executive VP and chief HR officer for 7-Eleven. Her original plan was to work in finance, but as she has learned in her years in HR, things are always evolving. “It’s a very complex environment,” she said. Bowers spoke about her experience during a fireside chat at From Day One’s Dallas conference. Will Anderson, editor in chief of the Dallas Business Journal, interviewed her. Founded by Joe Thompson over a century ago, 7-Eleven has the philosophy of giving customers what they want, when they want it, where they want it, Bowers says. Store manager Johnny Green realized people wanted milk, eggs, and bread on the weekends, since grocery stores weren’t all open on the weekends. Thus began the company’s path to responding to customer needs.“We’ve been innovating ever since,” Bowers said. “All of that innovation is ongoing, it has to be and how we continue to galvanize and be relevant to our customers, is what we get to do and in human resources. [We’re] finding that talent that enables that.”Attracting Talent in a Competitive MarketOne of the biggest challenges any HR manager faces is attracting talent. 7-Eleven employs about 80,000 people, so they’re always looking to hire. There is a serious battle for talent, especially post-Covid, she says.“Whoever gets to the candidate first has the best shot at bringing that candidate onto the team,” Bowers said. “So we had to innovate. Our talent acquisition team has done a great job of leveraging AI to help us get to that workforce very quickly. Now, around 85% of the candidates are able to apply and be scheduled for an interview within an hour. And it takes about three days from the time of the interview to the day they’re able to start working.”Treasa Bowers, Executive Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer of 7-Eleven was interviewed by Will Anderson, Editor in Chief of the Dallas Business JournalNext comes training in the way they prefer to be trained: whether that’s leader-led, a facilitated conversation, learning on their own, or if they want a menu of options. That aspect of HR is constantly evolving.“We’ve had to innovate, and we're going to continue to have to,” she said. The key is to try to anticipate what’s coming so you can stay ahead of the curve. But it also means doing the right thing, whether or not it’s in vogue. Bowers is grateful that 7-Eleven has always viewed diversity, equity, and inclusion as essential, not just a trend. “It’s been really important and core to our business, because it’s who our customers are, it's who our franchisees are, and therefore, absolutely, who our employees are. It's a business imperative for us.”A big part of that is building trust within the organization—always doing what you say you’re going to do. Because otherwise, employees leave, Bowers says. “There are too many choices in today’s economy for them not to,” she added.Always AdaptingOne part of diversity at 7-Eleven is what they offer in their stores. Products vary from store to store to store, reflecting what the locals want. That’s how we bring it to life in the stores. They know that not every customer wants the same thing at every store,” Bowers said. “It’s different for everyone. And that’s part of the diversity message.”Understanding the values of different generations, particularly Gen Z, is a priority for 7-Eleven. The company actively listens to its employees to shape its value proposition, acknowledging that they still have work to do in this area. Bowers shared that their talent acquisition campaign, “I am 7-11,” highlights diversity and personal stories from employees, attracting new talent and showcasing career growth opportunities within the organization.The best piece of advice Bowers has received over her career? In every situation, you have an opportunity to be a student and a teacher. In other words, educate others but also be educated.It’s about understanding what’s going on in the world, in the company, and with the team members. “Then being able to educate others about what we’ve learned doing that in a way that they can digest it,” she said, “but also doing it in a way that compels action.”Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter.

Carrie Snider | June 04, 2024