Companies on this year's Most Admired for HR list are encouraging employees to take more control of their professional development and consider less-traditional, better-fitting career moves.
By Mark McGraw
Like many others, Robb Webb's career path hasn't followed a perfectly straight line.
"I stumbled into the HR field when looking for a job while I was still in college," he says. "When I registered at a Canadian federal-government student-jobs center to find work, they ended up hiring me to work at one of the centers, finding jobs for others."
Webb, who has served as the chief human resource officer at Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp. for the past six-plus years, began his post-college career working on a United Way campaign. His campaign chairman was a Westinghouse Electric Corp. executive, who subsequently hired Webb into the manufacturing company's HR department. Webb has also spent nearly 20 years in the financial-services sector. It was while he was leading Citigroup's international HR function that the company acquired Avco Financial Services in Australia, in hopes of expanding its presence in that market, he says.
"After one year, the integration had not progressed, so the business-unit president asked me to move to Australia to manage the integration," says Webb. "And this was after he had asked me to manage a project to open a business in Hong Kong. He told me he wasn't going to let my title limit me!"
This diverse experience ultimately helped Webb transition into his role as CHRO at Hyatt. He sees parallels between his career trajectory and that of countless co-workers at Hyatt Hotels, an organization that embraces a career-lattice concept offering employees multiple paths upward. Workers help chart their own courses -- getting experience in and collaborating with different disciplines, making lateral moves that uncover new interests and talents, revealing strengths and weaknesses, and gaining more depth and breadth of experience.
Employees seeking these types of opportunities would do well to see the organizations on the 2013 Most Admired for HR list, where Hyatt Hotels finds itself ranked No. 23 overall. (See chart.)
Since 2005, Human Resource Executive® has partnered with Hay Group to compile the "Most Admired for HR" list, culled from Fortune's annual "Most Admired Companies." (See sidebar for methodology.)
Among this year's crop, "I would say I see more organizations trying to define career paths specifically," says Mark Royal, senior principal at Hay Group Insight, the survey research division of the Philadelphia-based consultancy.
With today's employees desiring more responsibility in managing their own careers, "organizations are increasingly [creating] and communicating specific definitions of what career development means in the organization," says Royal, "rather than letting development be defined uniquely in the minds of individual employees."
Leading employers, for example, "are clarifying where employees should expect career development to happen -- in their day-to-day roles versus formal development initiatives -- as well as the roles and responsibilities of employees, managers and the organization in career-development processes," he says.
That said, recent research indicates many employers haven't yet warmed to this concept.
Hay Group employee-opinion norms -- determined from data collected in a series of employee surveys -- reveal that only 57 percent of employees hold favorable views of their opportunities for learning and development in their organizations, and just 44 percent rate their opportunities for advancement highly.
A recent survey by Woodcliff Lake, N.J.-based Lee Hecht Harrison also finds employees lack career-planning and development support. In a poll of 379 U.S.-based workers, just 6 percent said their employers "nearly always" use career planning and development to prepare employees for roles. Only 10 percent said their companies do so "frequently," and 19 percent reported their employers "sometimes" use career planning and development to prepare employees.
Perhaps these statistics also help underscore part of what makes Most Admired companies so admired. Whether driven by a still-shaky economy, scores of baby boomers delaying retirement and affecting Gen Xers' and millenials' advancement opportunities, or simply a desire to flatten out their organizations, many of the companies comprising this year's Most Admired for HR list excel at redefining career arcs -- taking an open-minded approach to career development and encouraging employees to do the same. HRE spoke with HR leaders at a few of those companies, to get a better look at some of the programs and practices that helped earn them this honor.
Personalizing Career Paths
In the past, top-performing companies excelled at professional development "because they could offer a fairly straightforward career-development track," says John Bremen, managing director and leader of Towers Watson's talent and rewards segment in the Americas.
Not anymore, he says.
Towers Watson has "had experience with many" of the organizations on HRE's 2013 list, says Bremen. "And when I look at these companies, I'm trying to think of one that doesn't take [a customized] approach to developing their people. And I can't do it. Tailored career development is a consistent practice among them."
At Oakbrook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. -- a Most Admired for HR perennial that ranks No. 25 this year -- high-potential employees are strongly encouraged to develop themselves by taking stretch assignments and working in various functions, says Richard Floersch, executive vice president and chief human resource officer.
With 1.8 million employees and operations in 119 countries, the organization offers plenty of room for movement -- throughout varied geographic areas as well as job functions. Yet, while most employees are eager to receive cross-training and acquire diverse experience and skills, it may be tempting for some to view a lateral move as a step in the wrong direction, he says.
To conquer the latter, "we've taken away some of the negative stigma around lateral moves, by treating them almost as promotions," says Floersch.
For example, "if we believe someone's got strong potential, and they're moving into a new function, we treat their offer package the same way we would [treat] a promotion," including salary, he says.
"It's about making sure people don't feel it's a side step, but feel it's an investment for the future," says Floersch. "The experience the employee gets [in a new market and/or job capacity] will, over the course of the next 10 to 15 years, likely differentiate him or her from peers who haven't gotten that experience."
McDonald's also boasts a "fast track" operations program designed to help high-potential employees stretch their skills while gaining experience in all facets of the company, says Floersch. Typically, these are employees from corporate staff functions "who aspire [to] and are judged to have strong leadership capabilities, results orientation and influencing skills," he says. Candidates "are evaluated by a panel of line leaders and HR against those dimensions. If they pass, then they start out working shifts in the restaurants and progress in an accelerated fashion.
"If you want to become a line leader and you're in the staff area, you have to start as a shift manager and work your way up," he says. "That could take 18 months or so. So that's a sizable investment. But if that's what an employee wants, then we help them get there." Employees selected for the fast-track program are assigned career coaches who help them map out career-development plans, says Floersch.
At Hyatt Hotels, employees aspiring to get on a similar track historically required very specific experience, says Webb. He and his HR team have helped change that.
"For example, it used to be that there were two paths to becoming a general manager -- through the food and beverage division or through the rooms division.
"When I got here, I had come from banking," says Webb. "I was told you come up through one of those divisions to reach management. I said, 'What about HR? Wouldn't some of the fundamental traits of an HR person fit well in a GM position?' "
A typical response, he says, was that HR -- along with other staff functions, for that matter -- weren't "typically where general managers came from. So there was this notion that, if something's worked for a long time, then why [should we] change it?"
Webb helped launch Hyatt's career-lattice program to assist employees interested in getting on the general-manager career track, and promote other opportunities throughout different divisions.
"The concept is not new," he says. "We simply adapted it from how other [companies] have applied the mind-set."
Webb himself seeks out employees from different divisions to apply for open positions. He cites an HR generalist he and the HR team recently recruited from Hyatt's IT department as an example.
"His technical skills and general interests and inclinations suggested he would meet a need within the HR function at our corporate office," says Webb. "He has been helpful in some of our [technological] communications, and I hope we are helping him develop expertise in the HR space."
Finding a Cultural Fit
The Hyatt Leadership Forum is yet another Hyatt initiative designed to help future leaders advance "beyond a linear career path," says Webb. Hyatt has offered the Leadership Forum for the past three years in partnership with nearby Northwestern University, which co-created the forum and helps modify it based on participant and leadership feedback.
Each year, Hyatt handpicks a group of about 25 high-potential employees -- ranging from general managers in the Middle East all the way to HR and communications directors from right in Chicago -- to take part in the 10-day program. In addition to performing community service throughout the city, participants take a bus trip to Hyatt Chairman and CEO Nicholas Pritzker's farm on the outskirts of Chicago, where they enjoy lunch, discuss the company's history and listen to Pritzker share his vision of Hyatt's future.
While the Leadership Forum "remains in its early days," says Webb, he and the HR team have begun to seek input from participants. "We're trying a number of things to measure each cohort, including tracking engagement results through an annual survey. Anecdotal feedback is also important, and we have participants self-reporting as to the experience," he says, noting an employee who recently told him taking part in the Forum " 'will change the way I lead and look at my role.' "
In addition to leadership development, a primary goal of initiatives such as the Hyatt Leadership Forum is to instill a sense of responsibility for maintaining the organization's unique culture, which espouses "thinking in terms of advancement rather than promotion," says Webb. "Strict swim lanes that define career paths can be limiting, and may not always communicate opportunities in the future."
This type of open mind-set is ingrained in the culture at Fortune's Most Admired and HRE's Most Admired for HR companies, many of which use the hiring process to gauge an employee's willingness to tackle diverse roles throughout the organization, says Mel Stark, vice president and regional reward practice leader at Hay Group. In fact, 73 percent of the organizations on Fortune's list test job applicants for cultural fit as part of the recruitment process, according to Hay Group figures.
"There are operational attributes that fit with a company's culture," says Stark. "The better companies look and test to make sure there's a good fit between the employee and his or her work environment."
Count Deere & Co. (No. 16 on the HR-specific list) among them, says Marc Howze, vice president of global human resources at the Moline, Ill.-based manufacturer of agricultural machinery.
Deere's HR team conveys the organization's four key cultural values -- integrity, quality, commitment and innovation -- in its recruiting materials and reinforces the message to employees once they join the company, he says.
"Deere's recruiting and staffing processes are rigorous. Clearly, we seek to have technically competent people working throughout the company. Additionally, we use the process to ask questions of our candidates," says Howze, such as where they feel they thrive as an employee and what accomplishments give them the most pride, for instance.
"By paying close attention to how these questions are answered, we can assess whether individuals will work well in the John Deere culture."
In terms of career development, the company is looking for those who crave disparate work experiences in terms of locale as well as job description, says Howze.
"We offer challenging assignments around the world, with significant responsibility, and we are known for our leadership-development programs," he says.
"We have continued to grow our employment brand in these regions, not simply as a great company to work for, but also as an organization where an individual can achieve [his or her] development goals and career objectives."
At McDonald's, Floersch has his own way of evaluating how much a prospective employee values the flexibility that's such a part of the company's culture. All McDonald's employees are required to spend at least two weeks working at one of the organization's franchises -- manning the drive-thru, tending to the grill, working the cash register and so on.
"When I'm interviewing someone, I ask him or her about working in one of our restaurants. And if they start to look at me funny, then the interview is essentially over," says Floersch. "The only reason we're here is because of the incredible work being done in our restaurants. If [an applicant] doesn't get some sense of why we're here, and how challenging those jobs are, then [he or she] has lost an opportunity to fit in with our culture."