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Career Development and the Role of an Internal Career Marketplace

August 24, 2021 | By Donna Fitzgerald

Have you ever been surprised to learn that a colleague or peer once worked or trained to do something completely different than the job they are doing today?

I’m sure most of us have had this experience. For example, I have a friend that runs a hair salon, but her first job out of college was actually as a COBOL programmer. Another friend was a theater set designer before he became a CPA, and a different friend was a fashion designer in New York before she became a teacher.

The reality is that people grow, evolve, and change in ways that have nothing to do with a linear career path. Even in cases where people stay within an industry, their specific jobs can change multiple times over their careers.

When I worked at Intel, finance people rotated jobs every two to three years. While I’m 95% sure this policy had nothing to do with our career growth — I believe it was to keep people from cooking the books or embezzling — it unconsciously conditioned us to believe that the more often we moved, the more we learned.

In last week’s blog, I offered a technique that works for letting people plan their career development in quarterly increments. However, based on my own experience, that isn’t quite enough to scratch the itch for variety that some people have. Nobody wants to feel stagnant — a sense of progress is critical to feeling engaged in our work.

What’s the solution? Create an internal talent marketplace.

Current employees belong in the talent pool

While most companies post all open jobs internally, it’s usually a waste of time to even apply. I’m not throwing stones at anyone when I say this — as a hiring manager, I’ve been just as guilty of not looking internally to fill open positions.

In fact, until I started defining the emerging discipline of people capability management, I never even thought about someone from engineering coming into finance or someone from finance going into product management… even though I ultimately made that job change myself!

For an internal career marketplace to work, we need to ensure that people believe these positions are truly open to considering current employees from other areas of the company. And, of course, we need to make sure hiring managers are treating current employees as serious candidates.

Empowering career jumps within a company

ROLM (the company I worked at after Intel) put a lot of time and effort into thinking through how to make this type of transfer work. As an engineering-oriented company, they found that a lot of engineers were interested in moving into sales.

The problem for the company was that engineers have a high base compensation while salespeople earn their money based on commissions. From a company standpoint, the problem was that the engineers who wanted to transfer wanted to take their base salary with them and would therefore out-earn normal starting salespeople.

To solve this problem, the company worked out a plan where the engineer moved to a sales person’s base compensation but kept their “engineering premium” for six months. For the next year, their premium was reduced every month until it disappeared. The assumption was that if they succeeded in sales, their commissions would fill in the difference or replace the premium entirely.

While the numbers weren’t exactly one to one, the turnover cost of replacing a senior engineer was almost as much as the engineering premium the company was willing to pay. The head of product marketing explained it perfectly: for those who simply were not cut out for sales, they were able to find that out for themselves without leaving the company.

Overall, investing in this program enabled ROLM to reduce costly turnover while empowering employees to take control of their career path. Don’t we have to wonder why more companies aren’t implementing this win-win type of internal career marketplace?

Experience is always the best teacher

There was also another advantage to ROLM’s program, one that was less tangible but still critically important. It has always been a challenge getting engineers in touch with customers’ real wants and needs— thanks to this program, every person that failed at sales and returned to engineering brought with them a new perspective about what customers wanted from the product that they could share with their team.

I saw something very similar happening back when Silicon Valley 2.0 was the land of startups. In those days, every engineer believed that they, too, could figure out a product idea that would let them start their own company.

The difference between those who just dreamed and those who made it a reality usually came down to selling skills. After all, raising venture funding is selling, pure and simple.

But, in my opinion, it didn’t matter that only 10% or so of them would ever make a successful career switch. What mattered was that once they came back to engineering, their experience would forever change and improve the quality of their thinking. That alone was worth its weight in gold.

Embrace organic career marketplaces

Looping back to the general topic of establishing an internal career marketplace, my advice is to make sure it’s more than an HR initiative. After all, one of the reasons the ROLM program I described above worked was that it was developed internally between engineering and sales.

As I discussed in my last blog post, allowing people to signal where they want to go next is a key component. But we also need to focus on empowering HR to help with career discussions.

When I started my career, supporting employees with their professional development was a manager’s job. But, like most things, only 20% of managers ever had any natural talent in that area, and I am not sure it’s a reasonable expectation any longer.

Companies need to be able to listen to people and offer advice as they share their hopes and desires for their career journey. In reality, this is more of a coaching skill than it is a technical orientation like finance or engineering. That’s why we need HR, not managers, filling this role.

I believe an internal career marketplace is the right direction for the future. By giving employees a sense of control over their career development, we increase engagement and productivity while reducing costly turnover. But, in order for it to be successful, we must put people at the center, not the marketplace.

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