Thriving Within: How Companies Are Fostering Internal Mobility for Success
Why do most employees choose to leave their companies? A Gallup survey of job seekers looking to leave their current role discovered that the number one reason was lack of engagement with their organization, cites Scott David, CEO and founder of The Authentic Executive. Respondents explained they were looking for professional development, career advancement opportunities, and more interesting work to keep them engaged. The good news is that this is a salvageable situation for employers willing to focus on their employee engagement and internal mobility strategies.To retain valued workers and attract top talent, more companies are focusing on providing both upskilling and reskilling opportunities to their workers to help prepare them to move into new roles across the organization. During a panel discussion at From Day One’s Denver conference, experts discussed the benefits of improving internal mobility. In the discussion titled “Creating Opportunity Within: How Employers Are Boosting Internal Mobility,” the panelists discussed topics around how employers can coordinate these efforts by their executive teams and leaders in HR and talent acquisition, and why better internal mobility can align with efforts toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.Helping a Company’s Bottom LineDavid notes that studies from Gallup, SHRM, and Deloitte have found that internal mobility correlates with a 21% increase in engagement, a 23% increase in productivity, and a 40% reduction in turnover. “So when you figure it takes one-and-a-half to two times somebody's salary to replace them, those numbers add up pretty quickly,” David said.Upskilling is one of the key ways to increase retention. When employees have an opportunity for professional growth, even if it’s just skills-based rather than a title, it can increase their desire to stay. Panelist Kassey Kampman, VP of people operations at SSA Group, is a perfect example, having started as a cashier at the company then growing in her responsibilities over 15 years. Kampman shares that the company looked to its employees to guide it on what training to provide. “We took the bottom-up approach, which is very organic, leaning into our daily operations and observing skill gaps, observing our operators in the field, letting our people tell us what skills they’re interested in and what they are seeking,” Kampman said. From there, they were able to build out a standardized upskilling model.Rebecca Warren, director of customer success at Eightfold, agrees that an organic approach is most effective. “When we back it up a little bit and say, ‘what skills are actually needed for this position?’ and we start putting a focus on the person as opposed to focus on the job, those skills become really apparent,” Warren said.David Mafe, chief diversity officer & VP of HR at Denver Metro Region, UCHealth, emphasizes the need for removing hard and fast requirements, such as certain academic certifications, from job descriptions in order to let the right people grow naturally in a role. “I think that’s really the future of upskilling,” Mafe said. “It's about removing the barriers so people are able to move once they develop skills. What we'll find is that there are people who are qualified who are hiding in plain sight.”Upskilling as a DEI strategyRemoving these barriers for advancement and instituting an internal upskilling program can complement an organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy, helping to ensure that employees from marginalized groups have access to all the tools they need to succeed. Mafe’s team noticed a high turnover of entry-level employees who were struggling with a need for better tuition assistance. Many of them were Black or Hispanic, often first-generation immigrants. UCHealth began offering in-house short-term skills training programs to try to offset the need for these employees to pay for education elsewhere. Getting an in-house certification in just a few months allows workers to progress to positions within the company where they can make more money.“You can start as a front desk person earning X amount, and then [transition to a role] where there's an immediate $3, $4, sometimes $5 difference that you're able to gain access to within about seven months, which is really powerful and makes a tremendous difference in the lives of the people that are working for us,” Mafe said. “We had this expectation that it was going to improve engagement, retention, and DEI and we saw all of those things right away.”In a conversation moderated by Elizabeth Hernandez, reporter at The Denver Post, the panelists discussed the topic “Creating Opportunity Within: How Employers Are Boosting Internal Mobility.” Melissa Uribes, VP of talent, diversity, equity and inclusion at Trimble, says her organization began working with workforce partners to provide accelerated boot-camp style training to employees that have demonstrated the right competencies for success in an effort to bring in more diverse leaders to a traditionally white male skewing team of engineering professionals. The partner even screens training candidates for Trimble and develops the 20-week curriculum. “Of the 20 employees who came through that cohort, Trimble ended up hiring about seven of them and they are really thriving in terms of their contribution to the company,” Uribes said. “And we have dramatically changed their economic mobility because they've now had access to a career field that they did not have access to before.”Employers are also recognizing that networking and mentorship are just as integral as education when it comes to retention – and that too can affect DEI statistics. Kampman says SSA Group built a mentorship program in 2015, when at the time it had only 23% female representation in its general management positions. “We had an ‘Empower Her’ ERG that was fostered toward empowering women in leadership. In leaning on the mentorship program, we were able to shift that representation to 52% in 2023,” Kampman said. The company has expanded the mentorship program to also include hard skills training as well as leadership exposure for its hourly workforce, 75% of which comes from marginalized groups.Shifting the Mindset Toward Internal MobilityOne of the biggest challenges to ensuring internal mobility can be a mindset shift for leaders who may not have prioritized it in the past. Part of this comes from recognizing past patterns, such as talent hoarding among departments and from there, developing benchmarks to reinforce accountability, Uribes says.This keeps efforts from being performative, what moderator Elizabeth Hernandez, reporter at The Denver Post, called a “one-off brown bag lunch” meeting so that the leadership team can say that they tried. “Every organization in the company has goals around career mobility and career growth, and we do monitor,” Uribes said. “Very quickly, we were able to ensure that almost 25% of our requisitions are filled with internal talent.”That mindset shift can also mean seeing internal mobility as not just tied to roles, but also to responsibilities and projects, Warren says, which are all “different ways to get people invested” and can keep the work fresh and exciting for employees. Managers are encouraged to develop gigs that can help employees build skills and try out new projects, while simultaneously ticking the boxes of major tasks needed to move the company forward.Leaders should set the standard for workplace pride, Mafe says, by having a system in place to celebrate employees who take on new roles or complete training programs. And it’s also about developing a bit of tolerance for risk, “to be willing to take the risk of investing in a B player, or letting an A player go in order to continue to further their career,” David said, and focus on developing talent with the hope that it will engender company loyalty.Ultimately, employee mobility and engagement should be the natural result of an overall focus on human resources development. “The right managers shouldn't be project managers, they should be people developers and enablers allowing folks to do what they do best,” Warren said. Uribes emphasizes the need to look at career development holistically rather than in terms of lines on a resume. “We believe in the lattice,” Uribes said. “Career growth isn’t always upward mobility.” Too often, David cautions, senior leadership is focused on the numbers, the achievements, and the deadlines. That shortsightedness can cause employees to get frustrated and leave. “Your primary job is to develop people,’ David said. “If you do that, the numbers will take care of themselves.”Katie Chambers is a freelance writer and award-winning communications executive with a lifelong commitment to supporting artists and advocating for inclusion. Her work has been seen in HuffPost, Honeysuckle Magazine, and several printed essay collections, among others, and she has appeared on Cheddar News, iWomanTV, and CBS New York.