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Northern Trust global approach to career development - piecing it together

Posted on from Northern Trust

The development, mobilisation, progression and retention of existing employees is making a steep ascent back up the strategic priority list, and with this reinvigoration involves a facelift as to how businesses approach career development. Daniel Gallo reveals how he is helping to roll out a global career development program for Northern Trust across a total global employee population of 13,500 spread across 100 offices in 17 countries as part of a three year plan.

Multi-nationals re-evaluating talent management

Northern Trust is a global bank headquartered in Chicago that provides asset management, asset servicing and private banking services. So in an ever more globalised world, where the fight for talent no longer has jurisdictional boundaries and has become a time and money hungry affair, organisations are increasingly rediscovering the advantages of ‘growing their own’. Indeed, the notion of developing your own talent and progressing through the organisation is hardly a new concept, but it is one that seems to have taken a back seat when the times were good and recruitment budgets were fat.

The quest for transplanting external 'expertise’ into an organisation (and hoping the new host didn’t reject it) had become the norm. And yet, in these new times of austerity and with the lingering smell of burnt fingers from the inevitable failure of a few high profile talent transplants, many multinationals appear to be re-evaluating their approach.

In times of low employee turnover and restricted investment, some may think a significant focus on evolving global career development platforms is a nice-to-have.

Some may more simply view the need to provide solid career opportunities to its people as the right thing to do and a basic pre-requisite of being in business (and have been doing so for years). Irrespective of your view, there are two things that most commentators agree on:

1. Buoyant economic times will (eventually) return.

2. The growth of emerging markets is increasing the need for versatile employees who are versed in multiple cultures and markets. This demand is rising exponential to supply. So, here’s the conundrum. The realisation of these two points will unquestionably deliver fresh, exciting and rewarding job opportunities to the marketplace, as part of this brave new world. 

Opportunities that will undoubtedly offer temptation and career progression to those who feel they have stagnated, unnecessarily, over preceding years. Indeed if my synopsis of conversations from two recent HR networking events are anything to go by, it’s already started. Organisations anticipating these trends are investing in the retention and progression of their talented employees now. In these instances, career development will equal competitive advantage.

Defining career development for your organisation

At Northern Trust, we quickly realised that career development can mean a hundred different things to a hundred different employees. To address this Challenge we decided back in June 2009 to initiate a long term change program that would dramatically transform how we provided career development to our people. This has transpired to be a three year strategic and tactical plan.

Year one (first phase)

The first phase (year one), is just coming to a close, and focussed on developing the core capabilities of our people and building the basic systems architecture.

Year two (second phase)

Year two will seek to deliver enhanced and innovative solutions, particularly in the arena of providing career advancement opportunities.

Year three (third phase)

The final year will focus on embedding, reviewing and refining to ensure we have a career development proposition that is differentiated in the marketplace. We arrived at this plan through our detailed diagnostics which led us to a clear path of understanding where we were, where we wanted to get to and, therefore, what we needed to do. In the spirit of delivering effective change that the business could assimilate, a realistic and logical plan of three years emerged from the array of data collated.

Career development research - global workforce

Our first task was to determine what career development meant to our employees. Without this upfront awareness we could have easily fallen into the trap of developing ‘generic’ solutions that were assumed to be what our people wanted. We also knew a solid level of front-line insight would bode well with our executive when it came to presenting recommendations, and it did.

So, we embarked on a global round of employee forums, 24 in total, covering a cross section of 250 employees, ran by regional HR teams to get under the skin of ‘what does effective career development look like’? This was a truly collaborative effort across all our regions and also served to engage the broader HR community in the program. All HR leads collated the feedback into an on-line survey and submitted back to me for analysis.

The perception of whether a company offers good career development also proved to be an emotional point for our employees, and critically poor career opportunities came out as the number one reason for why someone would look to leave an organisation. Whether the variance in interpretations was driven by age, previous organisations or local culture, the consequence of poor career development was unanimous across every continent.

In addition to the employee forums, 11 leaders from across the business were interviewed including global practice leaders from HR and our most senior business leaders from the executive management group. This provided invaluable feedback.

One senior leader voiced as part of their feedback:

"Career development has to have top down accountability – we need consistent corporate criteria."

Another respondent said:

"Career development is about being inclusive – we have to deliver a fair process available to all employees across the globe."

Combining these employee forums with detailed interviews with leaders across the business and a thorough investigation into what other organisations were doing about their career development Challenges, allowed us to paint a clear and compelling picture of our starting point – the differing views, the common voice and above all a lucid sense of what success would need to look like for our diverse global population.

Northern Trust insights - outcomes of research

Two key insights we learned:

1. Don’t forget your small offices. It’s easy to focus your efforts on your major sites, but a truly global approach has to give the smaller offices a voice. Career development for a remote office of eight is going to look and feel a whole lot different to a centre with thousands.

2. The success of career development relies on a three-way partnership: the employee, the manager and the organisation. While this may seem like stating the obvious, it became clear that an over emphasis on one of these can derail any focus. It’s a fine balance between empowering the employee to determine and drive their own career, providing managers the tools and capabilities (and incentive) to enable progression and the organisation providing a robust and varied framework of career development opportunities.

Mapping out a global career development path

With our new understanding of what career development meant to our people in hand, we set out to start dissecting this unwieldy term ‘career development’. This would allow us to break it down into more manageable buckets and would allow us to get a clearer handle on the breadth and depth of areas we’d need to address or importantly build clear processes, where they didn’t currently exist.

Account for all of the moving parts

I’ll start by saying I’m not a practitioner who likes to make something more complicated than it needs to be. On the contrary, ‘keeping it simple’ has always been a mantra throughout my career and a guiding principle that has delivered solutions that stuck. However, try to over-simplify career development at your peril.

The next step in evolving the career development platform was to map all of the different processes, systems, solutions and policies that touched (positively or negatively) the career development experience. This became one of the most challenging phases of our program, but undoubtedly the most valuable. Why? Because it gave us a real appreciation for the fact career development was shaped, impacted and influenced by so many different things.

This led to a clear awareness of the areas we would need to evaluate, change or build to deliver a truly global and consistent career development experience for our people. In total, we mapped 26 distinct ‘items’ that we believed represented the full picture of career development within our organisation.

Components of career development at Northern Trust

At the highest level, career development became defined at Northern Trust as having four core components:

1. Career awareness

The research phase: providing employees (and managers) with access to tools, training and advice relevant to career preferences.

We launched a career development on-line resource portal that houses, in one place, a comprehensive suite of assessment tools, research articles, video interviews and training  solutions that will help employees research their career preferences - accessible by every employee globally.

2. Career planning

The discussion phase: the formal defining, agreeing and documenting of an employee’s career development path.

We have built a new career development planning tool within PeopleSoft (Oracle HR software) that allows partners to document and track their career goals and associated development activities.

3. Career development

The development phase: identifying appropriate development needs and offering employees access to diverse development opportunities.

For Northern Trust, this meant providing flexible development solutions that don't just rely on traditional classroom training (which we have in all major locations), nor are options exclusive to those in large offices. We have introduced a global mentoring program which has been very successful, and we will be launching a 'stretch-assignment' program later this year that offers employees the chance to contribute to real life strategic projects across a spectrum of disciplines allowing them to enhance specific development areas.

 4. Career enrichment

The progression phase: seeking, managing and realising new career opportunities that could take you in multiple directions (not just upwards).

We have introduced an innovative 'job swapping' process that provides partners identified as high potential with the opportunity to swap into an alternative role (based on appropriate criteria) for a 12 to 18 month period. This ends either with a permanent placement in the new role or a switch back, but for that employee having gained valuable experience.

Matching employee career aspirations

Conveniently, this definition highlighted that career development was indeed an ongoing sequence of stages. The effectiveness of each one was reliant on the one before it and the one after it, so just focussing on career development solutions without having sufficient career enrichment opportunities wouldn’t cut the mustard with employees hungry (and able) for progression. If anything, this would be counter-productive.

And so, we come to the idea of career development being about this delicate balance between what the employee wants and has to offer with what the organisation needs and can provide. If it sounds like matching on a dating site, you’re not too far from the reality.

Lessons learnt

1. Managers ‘protectionism of talent’ can be one of the biggest derailers to any career  development initiative and is prevalent in most organisations. Reviewing performance  management process for managers (stick), formal and informal incentives (carrot) and plenty of education to engage managers in supporting the ‘greater good’ concept are all critical. Again, this needs to be part of a full program of change delivered over time – repeatedly, not just once.

2. Make year one about establishing your foundational layers. Spending time building out your basic career development infrastructure may not be the ‘sexy’ part, but get it right and it will ensure you have a year two and three to focus on the more exciting bits. Things such as basic automated tracking and reporting capability, core skills development for managers to be able to (even) have career discussions with employees and establishing an intranet site that partners across the globe can get access to – all basic components, but totally invaluable for the long term.

Distilling the message and new ways of thinking

All of this said, what I’m not promoting is you share complex and detailed documents with business stakeholders. Simplifying and distilling down messages for audiences obviously has to be done. That said, you still need to make sure you’ve thought about all the moving parts of career development, behind the scenes, and appreciate the relative volume and complexity of those parts. This will drive you to building a long range plan of attack that is complete and realistic, rather than superficial and hopeful.

Key Lessons we learnt:

1. Global teams bring local knowledge. Having representatives from across the globe added invaluable insights of local culture and perceptions relevant to career development. This allows you to constantly validate whether what you’re seeing, concluding or developing is globally consistent or a regional variation.

2. Don’t limit yourself to processes, systems or solutions that are in existence within your organisation. You may have to think about elements your employees are asking for that do not currently exist, things that other organisations are doing that you want to offer or green field thinking - not being restricted by any current processes relating to career development and thinking, uninhibited, about the most appropriate solutions to meet a need specific to your business. It all depends on what you currently have and where you want to get to.

Career development isn’t built in a year

Nor was Rome built in a day, but much of it still stands. Sustainability is the key and so being prepared to invest in career development can be a longer term commitment than some realise. 

Identifying the quick wins you can start to affect visible change with the business are  obviously important, but having a clear long range plan whose tactics plainly link your current state to your future aspirations is even more so.

Add to this:

1. A clear long term vision
2. Strong program management capabilities
3. Robust change management discipline
4. An accountable leadership group
5. A diverse team executing on the ground

You may have some of the key ingredients to success. Not a lot to ask. Sadly, though, it can also take a good amount of that elusive commodity called ‘time’. Dependant on an organisation's current level of sophistication when it comes to career development (processes, systems or solutions already in play), it can take varying levels of time and effort to execute solutions globally.

However, delivering sustainable change that is embraced (and owned) by the business takes considerably longer. Having an approach to career development that is inclusive, global and above all else part of the fabric of the organisation was the ambition for Northern Trust. One we knew would take time and effort and one we’re still driving towards today.

We're still rolling out and analysing our career development program, but we are tracking both volume and quality metrics to understand take-up and effectiveness but early signs are positive. We’re now executing plans for the next phase.


Northern Trust

Northern Trust

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