Having a career used to conjure up images of navy blue suits, striped ties, mahogany desks and getting the corner office. With the need for organizations to become more agile and adaptable hierarchies have flattened, leaving fewer rungs to climb on the traditional ladder. Furthermore, employees have adapted to the rapidly changing work environment and the death of traditional expectations of job security with a readiness to shift not only jobs, but to a whole new field, to find the work that better suits their needs, interests and desires. These changes present special challenges to employers in attracting, retaining and fully engaging great talent in the organization.
To explore what leading organizations are doing that sets them apart, The Office Journal brought in Andrea Jacques to facilitate a discussion about trends and the concrete ways that two innovative companies here in Vancouver are approaching the issue. Andrea spoke with Lynn Corrigan, HR and Training Manager for Capers Community Markets and Hilary Ewart, HR Director of Flight Centre about the challenges they face and the opportunities and innovations they are creating.
AJ – Let’s first talk about this whole idea of a career and what it means to people. Both of your organizations have a fairly young workforce overall, with an average age around 27, would you say that a career is something that is important to them
LC – Most people don’t come to us seeking a career, yet over time as their interest in the business and our mission develops, as co-workers become friends, and as they see the opportunities for growth and development it is not unusual for them to become interested in a ‘career’ with Capers. Climbing the corporate ladder is not only not possible in our industry where there aren’t many rungs to climb, our people are concerned with quality of life, rather than thinking in terms of money and status. Employees often talk about developing a “happy life”, and discovering what that means to them. Opportunities to learn more, take on more responsibility, and earn more are readily available so people walk themselves into a career one step at a time. We are committed to each others success, and an important way of showing that commitment is helping employees understand the opportunities available.
HE – For Flight Centre career is definitely a word we emphasize when we recruit externally as this is one of the big advantages that we can offer to our employees. There are so many opportunities to advance and develop your career with us. One of our core philosophies is that we believe our people have the right to belong to a team, area and nation that provides an exciting “Brightness of Future” and is a vehicle for achieving their hopes, aspirations and dreams. Creating this “Brightness of Future” with each employee is what we focus on
AJ – And it is not just the organizations with a younger workforce that are noticing a shift from career to quality of life. Money and the status of leadership opportunities were traditionally seen as key retention tools. Recent research on employee engagement, workplace health and creating high performance, high profit organizations, however, consistently points to factors such as passion, meaning, and the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the world as being more important for enhancing both performance and retention. Do you see this in your organizations?
LC – Yes, the money certainly needs to be there, but they only appreciate it if it’s in the right place. If it’s in the wrong place it won’t create the motivation. That’s why we invest so heavily in training, community service, and in creating a supportive, healthy culture where people really work together and appreciate each other.
HE – In our culture there is very much a philosophy that what gets rewarded gets done so we incentivize heavily through financial compensation linked to performance. This is a key part of what excites the people who work with us, but I don’t think people stay just for money. They have to feel part of a team and feel valued whatever position they are in. The most important thing a manager can do to keep their people and make them feel valued is to get out there and talk to them – or more importantly listen to them – every day.
AJ – What are your organizations doing in terms of career development that sets you apart?
HE – Globally much of the career development work is outsourced, but we are unique here in terms of how we have tagged career development onto the recruitment process. Every applicant that applies for a position, regardless of whether they are applying internally or from the outside, gets a career planning session after their interview even if they are not offered the position. This strategy evolved because Flight Centre has been experiencing tremendous growth – about 23% per year – so there have always been many opportunities to advance within the organization, but we found that people weren’t moving into these opportunities as much or as quickly as we would like. We recognized that a person would apply for a job, be informed that they didn’t get it and then just be left. It came back to us that they were lost as to where to go from there and that we needed to provide some more guidance as to how to be a more qualified candidate in the future if we wanted to keep them with us. It is the same with external candidates. We have fairly strict specifications about the experience that a person needs to get hired on with us, but we want to help people to find a way to work for us if they really want to.
We also provide a great deal of support after they are hired. Once a new International Travel Consultant (ITC) is hired, the recruiter meets with them each week during their 6-week orientation for a one-on-one “appraisal”. After this they are transferred over to learning and career development where they begin work on our career development training modules. These are continuous throughout their career with us and are always being updated through the focus groups we run to ensure we are meeting their needs. They are also eligible to enroll in our leadership development program at any time, regardless of whether or not they have been identified as a candidate for a leadership role.
AJ – What sets Capers apart?
LC – Since nearly all of our managers are promoted from within, career development is extremely important to us. There are three key areas that set us apart. First of all, we provide a great deal more product knowledge training, management and leadership training than others in our industry. Right now, for example, I am just getting ready to implement a new program on management basics. It is a one-year program that combines classroom work, mentoring and a series of on the job training modules that they work through. Secondly, though we will be opening a new store in 2005, the last time we opened a store was in 1995, so for many years we might only have one management position come available. This reality has required us to get very creative about providing opportunities for people to get involved in special projects at the store or regional level to expand their skills and maintain their interest. Finally, our emphasis on community involvement is a big part of what attracts and keeps people with us. We pay for up to one hour per week for our staff to volunteer with community organizations of their choice. This can add up to more than a week of paid community service.
AJ – Although more organizations are beginning to implement such programs they often only amount to one or two days per year so that is a huge investment, but also a very smart one. I am certain it pays off for Capers in terms of the skills and knowledge your people bring back to the workplace, as well as in terms of increased confidence and loyalty that would also have positive impact on performance and, consequently, profits.
LC – Absolutely. It is a real source of pride for our people that they are part of a company that is so committed to the community and I know that this impacts both retention and our levels of quality and customer service.
AJ – Both of you have mentioned that leadership development is a key priority in your organizations. How do you identify and develop leaders?
LC – All of our managers are promoted from within so we use a similar process to what Hilary mentioned. When someone applies for a leadership position, we work with them to create a follow-up development plan afterwards whether they get the position or not. The leadership classes are not limited to only those in leadership roles. We believe that the more people who have leadership abilities at every level, the stronger our customer service and product excellence becomes. It is also an opportunity for development that people can put to use in special projects even if they don’t want to take on a full-time leadership role
HE – At Flight Centre, everyone is very much empowered to take responsibility and leadership from day one. When a new ITC starts out, they are assigned one of the 5 or more directorships that each shop has. The directorships include things such as finance, shop appearance, and marketing. If you take on the finance directorship, your job is not to actually do finance, it is to oversee the team in reaching their financial objectives and take the lead in helping everyone, yourself included to stay on track and meet the Key Performance Indicators that have been set out. We also offer an in-depth leadership program for anyone who wants it. Overall, our hierarchy is very much upside down. The ITCs are at the top so they are the ones who really need to take responsibility for leading the organization forward. We want to put as many skills and as much knowledge, confidence and empowerment in their hands as possible.
LC – It is important to remember, though, that not everyone is cut out to be in a leadership position in an ongoing role. I think it is important to distinguish between developing an individual’s ability to take leadership and responsibility for a special event or project and whether or not they actually desire or are suited for an ongoing leadership role. That’s why we provide so many other opportunities for people to develop by taking on special projects or volunteering. It keeps them feeling engaged and challenged but allows them to keep in touch with the part of the business they really love, which, for many of our people, is being out there on the floor with customers.
AJ – Empowering people to be leaders and take responsibility isn’t always easy. Regardless of whether you are dealing with a younger workforce or an older one, there are a variety of factors that interact to determine whether or not leadership and responsibility are embraced. A key element is having the systems and structure in place so that people are able to understand exactly what they are responsible for in terms of results. The other aspect is helping people to think through the consequences of their actions.
HE – Yes, our systems at Flight Centre are critical to help develop these abilities and support our culture of leadership and responsibility. We are all about ROI. Every employee from entry level to the CEO has a daily scorecard that helps us to track and meet our KPIs. We are very accountable. It is an amazing tool because at any point I can go in and look at what is not working and why not. Down in Los Angeles, for example, we were having an issue and we went in and were able to turn it around in a week because of this tool
LC – Systems are great for building accountability for results and consequences, The challenge, even with good systems is helping people shift from a tactical mindset to a strategic mindset – moving from doing what they are told to developing the ability to think things through and make those judgment calls for themselves. We hire people who are bright, have high self-esteem, and are eager to take things on – they are the keeners in school or university – but their assessment of their competence is based on an academic environment. When they get to work, the skills they need to perform and how they need to think are different than they expected.
AJ – I would agree. The models we have created to work with organizations help them make this shift from tactical – a focus on performing tasks and “doing things right” – which is very externally driven (and can be fear-based), to being strategic – where the focus is on passion, integrity, creativity and “doing the right thing – which requires strong internal foundations and the courage to take risks. It is actually not that complicated to understand – all of the knowledge required has been out there for ages – the challenge is to apply the principles. People and organization fall off track because they aren’t “doing what they know” consistently. Fear is a big part of what gets in the way. These “strategic” actions require leaders to explore and develop skills in ‘soft’ topics such as passion, engagement, and building trust that do not produce immediate tangible results in the same way that a tactical focus does. Being strategic requires a person to think out-of-the-box and take risks. Creating a culture and a context where people trust that they will be supported to follow their gut, be creative and take risks is critical for organizations that want to develop strategic thinking ability.
HE – I agree. Fear is so detrimental and it can really destroy an organization. At Flight Centre there is so much opportunity and it just isn’t okay to lose people because managers are ruling by fear. We really keep our eyes open for areas where we notice we are losing too many people to determine if we do have a management challenge. We have had to weed out a few managers because of this, but it is critical to address early on.
AJ – So after a discussion ranging from creating brightness of future to the art of strategic thinking what did we finally conclude about career development in organizations today? We all recognized that external support had been essential to all of us personally in being happy in our current careers. Great bosses, progressive organizations, and access to mentors had played an important part. We also agreed however, that the fact that we all took full responsibility for being proactive to learn, grow and create work we loved had allowed us to get and stay there despite many changes and bumps along the way. At the end of the day, we agreed that it doesn’t matter how many perks or programs an organization has in place, career fulfillment is ultimately a choice that individuals can only make for themselves.
Note: While this interview first appeared in The Office Journal (now Make it Business Magazine) in 2004 we thought it was worth posting as the ideas are still relevant today. In the last eight years, the ideas espoused have become much more commonplace in organizations that are striving to attract and retain top talent. Despite this, it is now more important than ever for individuals to take charge of their own career development and be proactive in finding or designing meaningful work for themselves.