The vital company metric... no one is tracking

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  • One out of every five of my employees won’t be in their roles next year. And I couldn’t be happier.

    Millennial job hopping has understandably created a lot of hand-wringing in the HR world. According to recent data, Millennials now expect to change their job every 2.5 years — double the rate of their Gen X predecessors. LinkedIn and social networking has made it easier than ever to find and seize better job opportunities.

    But what if this isn’t a cause for alarm? What if it’s actually a strategic advantage for businesses?

    Traditionally, employee retention — the ability to keep staff — has been considered one of the hallmarks of company health. But focusing blindly on retention actually misses the bigger picture. The metric we should be tracking is something I call people movement: the oxygen pulsing through a business.

    What is people movement? I’m not talking about churn: losing employees altogether is rarely a good thing. Instead, people movement encompasses all the internal role changes that happen within an organization. Part of this will be promotions. But an even more critical piece is lateral and diagonal movements of staff to different teams.

    Contrary to accepted wisdom, this kind of people movement isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s vital to organizational health. Indeed, moving people out of their current roles can be as important as keeping people in their roles.   

    This isn’t lip service. We’re a social media management platform with around 1,000 employees. We made it a company-wide goal — right alongside revenue targets — to ensure that 20 percent of our employees, or around 200 people in total, aren’t in the same seat by the end of 2017. It’s an open declaration to managers and staff alike that shifting roles is part of our culture and something to be encouraged, not suppressed.

    For so many companies, exactly the opposite is true: you’re expected to “do your time” before moving over or moving up. I get it. Managers make an investment in training and expect to see a return on that. But the world is moving too fast for this model, and it’s time we evolved. Here’s why.

    The two-way street of people movement

    For the right employees, an open people-movement policy is a boon: the chance to learn new skills, and fast, quickly expanding your professional toolkit and building a stronger resume. How important is this to employees today? 65% of Millennials say that personal development is the most important factor on the job, according to a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School study.

    In my company, we’ve seen salespeople transition to product management roles and marketing specialists shift to corporate development. Talented individuals who enter the company with one skillset are able to level up and acquire expertise in a whole new area. The result is happier, more fulfilled employees.  

    Meanwhile, the benefits to the company as a whole of embracing people movement are multiple and cascading. Lateral movement is a powerful way to break down corporate silos and diffuse institutional know-how. Not to mention, the reality that employees are continually on the move obliges a company to hire smarter and to train faster, maximizing return in a shorter time span.  

    Deeper still, people movement is a powerful way to sustain startup energy and spirit as a company scales. Talented recruits are drawn to early-stage startups by the excitement and promise of wearing multiple hats. But this kind of role fluidity diminishes as a company grows and jobs become more specialized. Lost is the enthusiasm and creativity that make the scrappy startup environment so special. People movement reignites that flame.

    Ultimately, the trickle-down effects of enabling people movement are better retention and better  recruitment, i.e. the exact goals that keep all HR teams up at night. Smart prospects want to work at a company where they know they can learn and grow. And A-players stick around longer when they’re continually challenged.  

    So how do you actually pull off a people-movement program?

    All this sounds great. But the truth is that actively encouraging your best and brightest employees to “move on” goes against everything managers are traditionally taught. You invest energy to bring people up to speed, only to see them swooped up by another department, leaving you with a new vacancy to fill.  

    That’s why, internally, we’ve found that people movement doesn’t work without a clear perspective shift. This involves reimagining the “manager” as mentor, champion and educator. Turnover, in this formulation, is an indicator of success, not failure. It’s not a sign that employees don’t want to work with you; it’s a sign that you’ve done an exceptional job. They’re graduating, not leaving.

    This holds especially true for departments that attract high levels of junior talent, like sales and customer success in our company. These teams have their own mandate to fulfill, but they’ve embraced the idea that they’re also an invaluable talent funnel for the rest of the organization. Rather than trying to lock their best people into a single career track, managers have learned to actively steer them to roles throughout the company.

    It’s also critical to point out that people movement is not about fast-track promotions, which only bloat management and inflate budgets. Instead, it relies on employees actively stretching to brand new roles, often in different departments. Yet interdepartmental walls can sometimes be intimidatingly high. How’s an employee supposed to know what goes on in other departments, let alone what roles need to be filled?

    Both informal and formal initiatives are key. On the informal end, employees across our company get together Friday afternoons when we open our taps for a round of drinks. It’s not rocket science, but it’s one way to get people outside their departmental bubble. Better still, we’ve got a robust #randomcoffee program. Employees sign up to be paired with a random peer, blind-date style, and then get to know one another over a coffee.  

    Our most effective tool is a lateral movement initiative we call the “stretch program,” which gives team members a formal way to try on roles in another department. Stretch employees spend one day a week on their adopted team, and the remaining time in their official role. At the end of the trial, the fit is evaluated: If everyone’s on board, the staffer can make the jump full time.

    It can be a challenge at first to wrap your head around the idea that helping people leave their roles — rather than encouraging them to stay put — is actually best for the health of a business. Yet, the simple truth is that if you don’t offer employees today the optionality to learn something new and change positions, you’re going to lose them. Faced with that prospect, a little people movement makes a lot of sense.

    Originally published on Linkedin Pulse.

  • Ryan Holmes

    About Ryan Holmes

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