Steer Your Career: One Company’s Approach to Career Management

What does it take to manage one’s career in today’s complex, global, constantly-changing workplace? Fifteen to 20 years ago companies invested in career programs that focused on transitioning employees out of their organizations in the face of significant corporate downsizings. Career management was reactive and after the fact.

Today, market and workplace instability not only still exists, but we’ve come to accept that change is constant and accelerating. Organizations are again investing in career management programs, this time focused on what might be called as a counterpoint—inplacement—the focus on employee mobility and development in their current roles and organizations. Moreover, the new career management programs place the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of each individual to build on existing skill sets, recognize personal motivators and articulate career direction.

Within this framework is Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts’ (BCBSMA) career management program.

Career Management at BCBSMA

BCBSMA employs approximately 4,000 associates. In 2004, the company conducted a survey of all associates to uncover what drives associate engagement. Career development, and more specifically, the ability to navigate one’s career at BCBSMA, came out in the top three drivers across all divisions of the company.

There is compelling evidence that loyal and engaged associates lead to improved business results, and we now know from our survey that providing associates with resources to manage their careers is likely to contribute to their level of engagement. "The economic advantages of loyalty are often more powerful than intuition might suggest." (The Loyalty Effect: The Hidden Force Behind Growth, Profits, and Lasting Value, Frederick F. Reichheld, Harvard Business School Publishing, 1996.)

There were also several business issues that led us to embark on a corporate-wide program:

  • The need to expand the roles and capabilities of associates and leaders to think and act innovatively to achieve the strategic objectives of the company in a competitive and dynamic health care market
  • The growing maturity of the workforce meant the need to build a pipeline of talent to sustain the company in the future

While each division embarked on implementing solutions to help associates with career development, the decision was made to tackle this issue at a corporate, systemic level to create a consistent approach and provide career development resources to all.

The first step in our strategy was to create a philosophy that would be the cornerstone of our effort. We accomplished this by forming a cross-functional team and facilitating several meetings led by development professionals in human resources. The team came up with the following philosophy and approach.

Career Management Philosophy

The core of BCBSMA’s Career Services initiative is the philosophy and approach to career management. As we began to promote the work and as we roll out additional programs and services, the following statement contains our overarching principles and guides our decisions:

Career Management is an on-going process that is associate-driven, leader facilitated and company supported. It aligns individual goals and aspirations with organizational objectives and opportunities by providing associates with the foundation to reach their full potential.

The lynchpin of this approach was the message that associates drive their own careers. In a company with many associates of long tenure (the average tenure at BCBSMA is 9.2 years), it was important to build the awareness that it’s not up to the leader or the organization to design one’s career path, as in the old employee contract.

The next crucial awareness was to clarify the leader role as facilitator. In order to put associates in the driver’s seat, leaders need to recognize that they are not responsible for directing associates into particular roles. On the other hand, leaders need to be available to associates to have open conversations about their careers whether they desire to stay in the same job or move within the company.

The third piece to our philosophy is company commitment and support. In the fall of 2005, the Career Services area (a department within human resources) was created to shape the career initiative corporate-wide.

Getting Started

Getting buy-in and support for the philosophy was the first step. Philosophically, everyone agreed that it is the responsibility of all associates to take charge of their career decisions. But how does that responsibility translate into action? The answer to that question became the focus of the Steer Your Career initiative. We knew that we needed to provide a solid foundation in the basics of career planning. We also knew that we needed to educate leaders on their role as facilitators and supporters as their associates began to explore career options.

With our philosophy and approach in hand, we embarked on a communication crusade across the company engaging leadership teams in the strategy we envisioned.

During these conversations, we stressed the message that "up is not the only way," and assessing one’s skills, interests, motivations and values is the right first step to determining individual career goals. We also stressed the notion that staying in a current job and continuing to contribute and build on key skills is a successful career strategy.

Educating Associates and Leaders

With the roles of the leader and associate clearly defined, we designed a series of foundational workshops to further plant the seeds of our philosophy and provide career development tools to solidify the philosophy and approach.

Leaders were given the opportunity to attend a workshop entitled Facilitating Career Growth that would educate them on the nuances that differentiate a performance conversation from a career conversation. They received a toolkit that provided a step-by-step process for having a career conversation and, most importantly, they practiced these conversations and talked through the "what ifs" that might emerge from these discussions.

Associates attended Navigating Your Career, a workshop that focused on self-assessment covering skills, motivations, determining career direction preferences and reputation. At the conclusion of this interactive session, the associate had a Career Planning Profile (a summary of the results of their assessments), which they could then use as the starting place for the career conversation with their leader.

We chose to implement the workshops in a structured and methodical way by business area so as not to disrupt day-to-day business. We engaged an experienced career consultant to co-design and deliver the workshops to demonstrate our corporate commitment and to enable participants to ask the "un-askable" questions and vent their concerns.

Extending Access

To supplement the messages and practice covered in the workshops, we made available two additional resources: physical office space and an enhanced Career Site on our company intranet.

Career Offices

Dedicating physical office space to career research and reflection is another way to support the Steer Your Career message and promote a self-service, individual accountability mindset. The offices—located in our three main business locations—are staffed for limited hours and offer a variety of resources including selected career-related books that can be signed out, experience-based tip sheets on topics such as informational interviewing, networking and dressing for success, and PC’s available with recommended career Web sites. Recently, we added half-hour coaching appointments to our range of services available through the offices.

Career Site

As part of a larger human resources initiative to enhance associate online access to and apply for internal job postings, we created a Career Services tab that contains information and resources for career assessment and exploration. From this Web site associates can read about the workshops, review the resources available in the career offices, take self-assessments online to focus on skills, interests, and career direction, select from a variety of tip sheets on topics such as informational interviewing, networking, mentoring resources and much more, and browse book abstracts, articles and Web sites related to career development.

Another interactive feature on the site is our Steer Your Career video. The film shows our associates participating in the workshops and brings to life an actual career conversation between a leader and an associate. The story follows the associate as she puts the agreed-to plan into action as a result of the discussion with her leader.

Measuring Progress

How successful has our career initiative been to date? From the start, our perspective was that the desired outcome of this initiative is long-term cultural and behavioral change. Up to now, we’ve been able to measure short-term success from the surveys of our workshop participants and users of the offices and online tools.

Short Term

To date, we have held 65 workshops with a total of over 900 participants. Amongst all participants, 97 percent rated the workshops as either excellent or very good in effectiveness.

One of the most important ways to gauge the success of the initiative is to collect anecdotal success stories of associates who have shifted their awareness or have taken some action towards steering their career. Here is a sampling of associate comments from our post-workshop survey:

  • "It really opens your eyes and gives you a perspective on your career."
  • "It gave me a clear understanding of where I might be headed."
  • "I found out I am on the right track."
  • "It was the best workshop the company has ever given."
  • "We [my leader and I] are on the same page now…I think the workshop is a way for associates to feel more at ease with their manager about current and future roles."

Leaders attending their workshop attested to the following:

  • "The program clearly explained the difference between career planning and performance discussions."
  • "I now give more thought to my direct reports’ strengths and to the aspects of their positions that they enjoy."
  • "…I have had an upsurge of strong internal applicants seeking openings in my area…"
  • "…I was able to reinforce the notion that up is not the only way to progress. Today, this associate is…happy in her new role."

Since our enhanced Career Site launched in July of 2006, we are monitoring the number of visits to our Career Services tab which have averaged at 1,000 visits per month. In order to stay connected to associates, we have established a Career Services mailbox for associates to send us comments and suggestions about the resources we have in place and ideas for additional support.

Longer Term

Consistent with our message that "up is not the only way," we are monitoring associate movement over the next few years to see if the frequency of lateral movement vs. promotions has increased. In addition, we are reviewing exit interview data and other human resources statistics.

More to Come

In 2007, we will build on the foundational workshops with additional opportunities such as, The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback, Managing Your Personal Brand and Exploring Your Options for Work After Retirement. We will expand the tools available on our Web site by adding a self-assessment especially for leaders and a resume builder tool.

Prior to the onset of the Career Services initiative, we had a defined performance management process and set of tools, a multitude of award-winning work/life balance resources and programs, a variety of training and development opportunities and we were beginning to implement a succession planning process. With the introduction of these human resources programs and services, we have moved toward an integrated talent management system with an underlying foundation of sound career management practices.

Embedded in our Career Management philosophy about one driving one’s own career is not only a message of accountability, but also a message of finding the key that unlocks the significance of work for each of us.

Originally published in INSIGHTS magazine.