Sitting in the driver

It’s fast becoming an axiom in the technology field that getting ahead requires getting around. The assumption is that those who want to take charge of their career paths, get promotions, move on to new projects and seize new opportunities must do so by hopping from company to company.

Employees who stay with one employer, we’re told, are stuck working where that company wants them – usually stranded on the same old project team or trapped on a preordained career track.

But try telling that to David Thompson, who took a job at age 19 distributing reports at Pier 1 Imports Inc.’s information systems department. Eleven years later, he’s a network systems manager at the company.

Thompson’s path has been a striking combination of his own initiative and Pier 1’s willingness to give him opportunities. And that, some say, is the formula for employee success: empowering employees to control their own career growth within the company.

IT managers say they agree that initiative can be encouraged but not created – employees like Thompson will take advantage of the opportunities you present. And you probably don’t want your less-motivated employees moving into positions of high responsibility anyway.

With the motivated workers, IT managers say, you don’t really have a choice; they will take charge of their careers, with or without you.

“Systems employees are very sophisticated consumers of the employment experience,” said Margaret Schweer, director of human resources for information systems at Kraft Foods International Inc. in Northfield, Ill. “The harder you try to contain people the more likely you are to lose them.”

Opening Opportunities

Thompson began expressing an interest in moving up while he was a report runner, teaching himself about PCs and writing programs on the side. When an opening appeared in PC support, his manager recommended him for the spot and he got it.

A year and a half later, he applied for and got an internal position as liaison between end users and programmers. As Pier 1 rolled out its first LAN, Thompson strove to expand his duties further into that area so he could learn more about network implementation. Five years later, he got a chance to jump the fence into systems administration – a role he had long had his eye on – when he heard of an opening there. Eventually, when a managerial position opened up last fall, Thompson’s boss remembered his expressed interest in managing and gave him the slot.

Fort Worth, Tex.-based Pier 1 has just 129 IT workers, so internal job openings are rather finite, and Thompson has at times been forced to wait for his chances. But he said he knew they would be there. “I was not stifled in any way when I approached management about opportunities.”

Because of the limited size of the departments, efforts in establishing formal career tracks haven’t proved viable at Pier 1, said Ginny Carroll, director of technology for information services.

But informal approaches work well. When a programmer asked Carroll about joining the electronic data interchange team, she sent him to talk with the relevant manager “to make sure that he knows that you’re waiting for a chance,” Carroll said. “So even if opportunities aren’t there right now, people feel like they’re being listened to.”

In some ways, it may be easier to advance at a smaller organization. As Carroll points out, “In a group of 129, it’s pretty obvious where the opportunities are.”

At 85,000-employee Cargill Inc. in Wayzata, Minn., it’s a bit more difficult. “It’s just a huge organization and is all over the place physically,” said Lloyd Taylor, corporate vice-president of IT at the agricultural, financial and industrial products conglomerate. “We have job postings like everybody else, but for [employees] to find out what’s happening is difficult.”

Of course, big companies such as Cargill have the advantage of offering career paths in any number of directions. It has long been standard thinking that IT workers need career ladder options other than managerial ones. And of course, to be effective, the purely technical paths must offer every financial and professional reward of the managerial track.

Steve Finnerty, CIO and senior vice-president of information services at Kraft, offers the traditional managerial track. But he also allows IT workers to move into the business units. In fact, a current leader of Kraft’s financial systems started in the IT group, went into the finance unit to support its applications and returned to work up to his current position.

“I encourage people to get broad experience and assignments that are just a bit over your head,” Finnerty said.

Schweer speaks of it less as a career track and more as “stringing together of meaningful employment experiences.”

And sometimes, when you let employees choose their path, they make the wrong choices. “The biggest problem we’ve had is people we’ve moved into management who have decided they didn’t like it,” Carroll said. Her response is to change their titles back, but keep them at the higher pay scale.

It’s not just managerial moves that fail to work out. Carroll recently sent a member of her call centre staff with a Cobol background to a client/server training class. “We found out that he really didn’t have the ability to do the data modeling and other conceptual tasks,” she said. The difficulty is in letting people try and fail without sending the message to others that they’ll be punished for giving it a shot, Carroll said.

Empowering, Supporting Employees

Increasingly, companies such as Kraft push the power directly to their employees’ fingertips through the company intranet. Internal job listings, training courses and job skill assessments are all there. It’s a regular company-run career counselling centre, right on the desktop.

Just a couple of years ago, Kraft changed the way it posted job openings on its intranet. Instead of focusing on the skills or experience required for a job, the listings now describe the development opportunity the position offers. In other words, rather than asking “Are you right for this job?” the listings ask “Is this job right for you?”

Likewise, Kraft’s employees are encouraged to view training choices as part of a continuum that fits into where they’re going next in their employment journey. Employees say they love the chance to choose their own classes rather than just attend the ones the company deems necessary.

Pier 1 goes a step further, making sure that employees who receive training get some small projects on which to use their new skills, even if the projects aren’t a normal part of their jobs. The company’s intranet debuted a new feature at the start of this year that shows every current project, with time lines, documentation and even requests for proposals. Everyone in IT can see what’s happening and what will be happening and consider whether it’s something they’d like to be a part of.

The common sticking point about empowering employees arises at the pivot point of an employee’s manager. Encouraging the worker’s eye to wander to new projects inevitably rankles managers who would like to keep their teams intact.

Finnerty said managers should be made to see that everybody gains from mobility. “If everybody is playing ball, then people are moving across functional areas, so if I’m losing a great person, I’m getting a great person,” he said.

That sounds nice in the abstract but will hardly mollify the middle manager facing a gaping hole where a former go-getter has come and gone.

It’s easier when the manager has forged a similar path within the company, Carroll said. Three quarters of the 24 managers in Pier 1’s IT department came from within the company’s technical ranks, she said, and that makes them more accepting when a worker comes to them with a transfer request form.

“I’ve gotten wonderful feedback from managers saying, ‘I’d hate to lose this person, but if it’s for the best for Pier 1, I’ll support it and be a reference,'” Carroll said.

“It’s the employee’s opportunity to make development happen,” Schweer adds. “It’s the manager’s responsibility to facilitate that development.”

Kraft puts its IT managers through leadership development training to make sure they have that attitude toward the employees working under them.

Schweer has a simple message for those IT managers. “Employees are gifts that you don’t get to keep,” she said. “You’re always developing them for their next stage.”

Bernstein is a freelance writer in Watertown, Mass.