How to build the best internal mobility program

Is internal mobility the way to keep talented employees from leaving your company too soon? We sat down with Katelin Holloway (VP People & Culture at Reddit, formerly at Klout) and Jennifer Beecher (Product Manager at Small Improvements, formerly Learning & Development at SoundCloud), who argue that offering clear career paths is critical to employee happiness – and therefore retention.

The numbers back it up. In a 2015 exit survey performed by CEB, the top driver of voluntary employee turnover was the lack of a future career opportunity (42%). That ranked ahead of dissatisfaction in compensation (36%).

Yes, organizations can and should be striving for equitable salary packages and top-notch benefits. But employees want to learn and grow, and if they can’t do it internally, they’ll look for opportunities elsewhere – and quickly. According to Paysa’s survey of prominent tech companies, the average employee lifespan at Facebook is just 2.03 years. On the lower end is Uber, clocking in at a 1.23 years average. Employees tend to remain at companies longer in Europe. Beecher said the average lifespan for a Soundcloud employee was 2.5 years.

The Appeal of Lateral Moves

That’s why Reddit’s people team has established a strong Internal Mobility Program to expand people’s concepts of developing in their careers beyond only a linear, up-the-ladder fashion.

“It’s a mutually beneficial process, but it’s also a new trend,” said Holloway. “It not only lengthens the employee lifecycle, but it helps you build a culture that is far more sustainable.”

The Reddit Internal Mobility is a keystone of their learning and development process and includes a generous range of ways for employees to grow. The program includes manager training and skills development courses. It also encourages mentor pairing from within and outside the company. Finally, it also provides funding and sponsorship for other development or training that might be relevant for an individual.

The de-stigmatization of lateral moves means that employees can feel free to explore roles that previously seemed totally out of reach. Holloway noted that at Reddit, it’s entirely feasible that someone who works in sales receives the necessary training to make the jump to product.

Beecher champions the idea of companies treating horizontal mobility in the same manner as promotions or individual contributor tracks. Beecher spoke to her own background and the horizontal moves she made from engineering to HR in her career before settling into Product, which gives her both versatility and a steady stream of new challenges.

“I think it’s important to make it clear (to employees) that vertical is not the only way to move,” Beecher says. “Think strategically. If you have a promotion process, why not set up a lateral process as well. We should be celebrating people for their curiosity.”

Making Internal Mobility a Priority

In an ideal scenario, Beecher says that employees would own their Personal Development. But she also feels it’s critical for leadership to communicate what sort of additional routes are available so that employees can progress.

Where the people department comes in is ensuring the right conversations take place with the employee, capturing motivations, probing curiosity, and managing expectations. The proposal also needs to mesh with the company’s goals. If your company already has this kind of program in place, just communicating that it’s available can go a long way toward making employees feel comfortable accessing it.

Timing is also key. Through regular 1:1 meetings, a manager might be able to determine whether a direct report is unsatisfied in their current role.

In a similar vein, the Harvard Business Review noted how Credit Suisse identifies employees “at risk” to leave, and looks to preempt their departures with offers in other departments. By being proactive, Credit Suisse shaved 1% off their attrition rate in 2014, while saving between $75 million to $100 million in recruitment and training costs.

But Holloway said a startup doesn’t need to have a big company’s resources or funding to build out an internal mobility program – it’s more of a philosophical shift of giving permission to people to learn and develop outside of their role.

“It really is exposure. You don’t know if you even like something without being exposed,” she says. “By removing the swim lanes or removing the barriers between functions, you’re really supporting a collaborative work environment. You start asking, “How do you do what you do? Why did you do that? Why did you make that decision?”

TLNT recommends having employees work on projects outside of their current role. This exposes them not only to new experiences and challenges but helps them acquire new skills that can bring back to their teams.

A Worthwhile Investment

Today, more so than perhaps ever, employees want to work for organizations where they can learn, grow, and thrive. While traditionally that’s often meant providing structure for a leadership-focused employee to advance vertically in the company career ladder, that’s doesn’t accommodate everyone. Organizations should also strive to deliver creative solutions for employees seeking new challenges, or simply have the desire to learn a new skill.

“It’s really just the right thing to do for people,” says Holloway. “It’s something that, if you value curiosity, and you value people that have a lifelong thirst for learning, you should invest in that regardless of why or how.”