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How to Create Clear Pathways for Career Mobility

According to our data, 88% of organizations are struggling to find and hire the talent they need right now. And while this was an issue before the pandemic, this situation is only escalating, forcing people leaders to think outside the box when it comes to hiring and retention. It has meant a considerable rise in the number of companies looking to internal mobility as their answer. Developing the talent within your walls is a no-brainer and creating an atmosphere where employees can thrive only enhances this proposition. So, how do we do this successfully?

During our SocialTalent Live webinar, we conducted a panel with Zohra Yafai, the Global VP of Talent Acquisition at Cisco, and Melanie Hayes, CPO at Nash Squared to dig into these particular topics.

Career mobility

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Key takeaways:

 1. Up is not the only way!

There is this persistent idea that career progression and internal mobility only focus on promotion. But Zohra made the point that development and opportunities also play a huge role in how organizations should approach career mobility. Think moving laterally within teams, doing stretch assignments, building your breadth of skills – all of these functions combine to keep your talent engaged and on a path to greater things. We need to reframe the narrative that someone is only doing well if they get a pay increase or an updated title – career progression is the result of MANY different aspects that organizations and leaders should be looking to leverage.

2. Beware proximity bias

One of the greatest enemies to career progression in a hybrid work situation is proximity. Left unchecked, a bias can creep in (whether conscious or unconscious) around the employees who spend more time in the office space or sit near particular leaders. They become front-of-mind when conversations are being had around new opportunities. To combat this, both of our speakers advocated for more intentionality around how we train leaders within this remote space. In-office management is the status quo for most, so it’s important that we reconfigure this for a hybrid model and create a fairer and more inclusive approach to mobility.

3. The manager’s role in retention

Coupled with conversations around expanding career opportunities, the issue of retention also came up quite a lot. For Melanie, the question was – how to we enable and support managers to keep their teams engaged and and healthy? We’re operating in a different world now and managers really are the key in this situation. She told us, for example, that they’re moving away from engagement surveys as a HR owned project, to one that leadership drives given how they directly work with the employees. But we have to train our managers to have these kind of conversations.


  • [1.26] Cisco’s focus on internal movement
  • [2.52] The importance of retention
  • [6.31] Career mobility isn’t just promotions
  • [8.41] Creating visible career pathways
  • [12.48] Proximity bias and remote work
  • [18.13] The drop in attrition levels
  • [22.04] Embracing change and iteration
  • [24.04] Supporting leaders and managers



Johnny Campbell:

So that brings us to our final panel, and in this panel for SocialTalent Live. I want to welcome Zohra Yafai and Melanie Hayes to the screen. I want to dive straight into our discussion on the practical advice we can offer to CPOs for improving the world of work in 2023. Zohra, Melanie, you’re very welcome.

It’s a pleasure to have you both, thanks for hanging on. I know it’s still early enough for you, Zohra, thank you and Mel, you’re at the end of your day, similar to myself and the rest in Europe, and loads in Asia are into the night, listening to us as well. We’ve got tons of folks who have stayed on to hear this great conversation. We’ve heard a lot about change management in our first panel, retention of talent, internal mobility, leadership being the big focus that Pat discussed as well. But I want to dig a little bit deeper, and look at the scenarios you’re facing. How are you planning to deal with those as talent leader in your organizations as well. To start with, I’d like to ask each of you to call out your biggest goal, biggest priority in 2023. Zohra, I might put that to you first, just to get a sense, when you look at 2023, what’s going to be the big thing you work on?

Zohra Yafai:

Thanks Johnny. This is a hard one to answer, because I think there are so many things that people are looking to focus on and I think the biggest one for us is probably internal movement. How do we make sure that our employees that have done a phenomenal job carrying the company, the organization, and the goals, and our customers through the pandemic, people are ready to think about, “Okay, well what’s the next step for me? How am I growing? How am I learning?” And so that’s a really big thing that we are trying to focus.

We’re really lucky at Cisco. We have a really healthy internal movement numbers if you just look at the numbers. But what is that experience? And I loved what Pat was saying earlier on about the leader piece. What is that experience? Is that owned by our HR organization? It should be owned by our leadership. So what’s the enablement for our leadership there? So lots of different things that come off, something as simple as saying internal movement, but really digging into that it’s not just increasing the number of our recs that are filled with internal talent, but really understanding how do employees feel as they’re going through that and how do our leaders enable that. That’s probably one of the biggest thing we’re sort trying to crack. That’s the nut we’re trying to crack this year.

Johnny Campbell:

It’s another that many are trying to crack. It was mentioned earlier on the panel by Sara as one of her biggest priorities as well. So I want to come back to that in a second. But first, Mel, what are your priorities? Is it something similar or something different?

Melanie Hayes:

I think it’s pretty similar to what a lot of people have said during the calls today or at least the panels today. Its retention for us. We’ve all had, I think during the pandemic, challenges with hiring, and we’ve got two sides to technology outsourcing business and a sales business. And both of them were hit quite hard. But we’re really looking at, and I think it was Sara that said earlier that resonated with me totally, we’re really looking at all of the different levers that impact retention. So whether that’s career conversations, great career pathways that are all linked with development, behaviors, not just metrics. Really looking at recognition. And I don’t recall who said this on the panel earlier, but it’s really that one size fits all approach doesn’t work anymore. And so we’ve really got to think differently about how we’re handling with this.

Johnny Campbell:

I love when you look at it on the face of it, one might think both of you are looking at different challenges, but to Sara’s point earlier on when she did the survey and the data to look at those exit interviews. So look at retention being, let’s say an issue for you Mel. In the exit interviews, 40% say the biggest contributing factor was the lack of clear career opportunity, which I think goes to your point Zohra, which is we need to create more mobility, not just to fill more jobs internally for the sake of it. And somebody mentioned earlier these things are very much interconnected and we’ve had people in the chat asking what about diversity inclusion and equity and all this as well, but they are super interconnected. So Zohra, when you look at mobility and trying to create more opportunity, maybe give me a hint of the complexity of that and the different stakeholders even that are involved in trying to achieve more mobility from your perspective.

Zohra Yafai:

Yeah, it is so complex and I think one thing we’d learned during the pandemic, the pandemic was terrible for so many reasons obviously. But one of the things I think we really learned was how challenges show up differently for people. Opportunities show up differently for people. And so how do you lean into understanding, you can’t necessarily always just create one big blanket enterprise corporate policy and say everybody has to do this.

So if I take a look at maybe how Cisco approached remote working and we obviously flipped to remote working pretty quickly. But now as we’re emerging out of the pandemic, we’re trying to say, “Okay, we’re a hybrid workplace.” So that means leaders and teams have to decide through thoughtful conversations the right way to work because one team could be totally remote and that might work really well. One team may need to be in the office. Some individuals may have different circumstances that mean that a different blend might work for them.

And so I think inherent in that complexity, I think it is how people want to work. I think the generational differences in that, we’re certainly seeing that our more early in grade, early in career folks want to experience more in-office engagement in how they learn. Working parents may experience that differently. There are so many complexities, I couldn’t name them all.

I think what we’re trying to lean into is how do you understand those complexities and how do you have those tough conversations to really be able to pull out what is the right solution and then determining, do you have, sorry, this has to be a policy for all to ensure fairness or here’s where we can allow some nuance. And I think that’s probably what everyone’s trying to deal with and tackle. But I would say that’s some of the complexities.

And then the other thing is even the idea of career mobility. Sometimes I think we’ve perpetuated this idea that that is upward promotion, but gaining breadth of skills, moving laterally, doing stretch assignments. I myself, I moved to California seven years ago from the UK. That was huge opportunity for me to grow and accentuate my career in a different way. And so what are all of those opportunities when we talk about career mobility and career development, there’s so much in that, but I think sometimes employees, maybe the measure we typically have in organization is, “Did you get promoted? Did you get a pay increase?” And I think in this high inflation environment, that’s been very much brought to the forefront of people’s minds. “I’m only doing well if I got a promotion or a pay increase,” but there’s so many other ways that we could be thinking about that.

Johnny Campbell:

One of our authors on the social talent platform and a previous guest on STLive, Bev Kaye, I spoke to her last night and she wrote a great, great book 20 odd years ago called “Up is Not the Only Way,” and it’s classic because it stands today, which is, it isn’t just about upward mobility. There are in her book seven other different possible descriptions of ways you can progress in your career. As you said from gigs, projects, assignments, temporary things, moves, et cetera. Sometimes leaving the company is something that you need to get your head around.

And it’s occurred to me recently that, and I come from a recruitment agency background originally and I know Mel you’re the same, is that what the external staffing agency world did really well was try to provide career advisory services to talent, but they’re going to provide it to talent to make them leave their current employer. I’m seeing increasingly companies saying, “We need to do this internally. We need to first of all understand the career expectations of our talent and then manage that because if we don’t somebody else is going to and they’re probably going to persuade them to leave us.”

So Mel, when you think about retention and you think about career opportunities and mobility, how much of the solution to retention do you think providing more career opportunities is, and what are the other factors that you’ve looked into that might drive more attention of talent?

Melanie Hayes:

Yeah, and I know the career pathway piece came up earlier as well. Actually it being visible. So we’ve done a lot of work. Two things really actually. One is having visible career pathways and I really love what you were saying about mobility and it not being up and actually could just be a bigger or more complex role or in a different location or a different environment with a different team. So allowing people to see how that’s an opportunity. But I think the biggest piece of work here comes with managers. Managers are not technically greater. Having a good career conversation and being honest with somebody about the steps that they might need to take to make the next move regardless of where that move might be. And so I think combining those two things, working with the HR function, building these really clear career pathways, giving people the opportunity to understand lateral moves as well as actually moves across brands and all other sorts of stuff, but training our managers on how to handle those conversations is really important.

I think on top of that when I’m looking at retention, engagement is huge. So using the engagement data internally is a really big thing for us. So responding to the drivers that are keeping people sticky and keeping them connected to your business. So I think I’ve seen in other organizations, and actually I’ve probably been guilty of doing it myself, doing engagement surveys and saying, “Oh here’s the result. Brilliant, that’s great. Aren’t we fantastic? Let’s pat ourselves on the back.” And then three months later or six months later, doing it all again.

Actually one of the things that we have been laser-like on in our business is taking the data, reviewing the data book, passing it down from a leadership level. So we are determined in our business that engagement surveys and the outcomes of those engagement surveys are not an HR initiative. So actually the leaders own it. The leaders have people in their organization that sit at different levels, that work with them on the outcomes so that then we can start to think about our different brands and our different geographies and think about the interventions that we might need to put in place, what we might need to do in terms of communication.

And then lastly, I think the other thing that I’ve been focused on is around mental wellbeing and actually how we help managers to manage teams that are diverse and that are working remotely when they’ve never been used to them working remotely. They’ve had them in the office and they can see them face to face. And we had a discussion this morning and I’d be really quick Johnny, ’cause I know we haven’t got a huge amount of time, but we had a session this morning and there was a colleague that reached out to me afterwards, we’ve been talking about feedback and they said to me, “When I’m at home and I have feedback and I think it’s negative feedback, I shut down and I take some time to think about it and if I found it really difficult I figure a way to deal with it but I don’t know how to do it when I’m in the office,” because they’ve never really worked in the office, they’re early in their career.

So thinking about how we are supporting managers to handle those sorts of things like feedback, like mental wellness, how we’re operating is really important.

Johnny Campbell:

It’s funny you bring that up. I was sharing with my business partner Vince last night that 75% of SocialTalent’s workforce joined post-pandemic. They’ve never worked in an office together. We’re a remote first business, although we have a hybrid space that they can use. I know Cisco has been always pushing these types of workplace trends well before the pandemic Zohra, and my experience working with your organization, with your teams that you’re remarkably progressive this way, but 2020 saw an even bigger increase in the amount of people looking for that flexibility. When you look at the challenge of career mobility, to Mel’s point in a increasingly virtual world, what are the perhaps newer challenges that present themselves that you’ve seen on scale across a 70,000 person organization? And what are some of the solutions you’re looking at, that you’re excited about to try and solve those?

Zohra Yafai:

Yeah, I do think it’s a lot of what Melanie was just sharing, which is that kind of connectivity and employee listening and understanding. So everyone at Cisco, there’s an expectation that you check in with your manager once a week and you just quickly say, “Look, this is what I loved about last week. This is what I absolutely found really challenging and I loathed about last week and here are my priorities for the week.” And just really trying to make sure because we’re all so busy, the days of the weeks they go by really quickly and it’s really easy for a leader to suddenly realize, “I haven’t spoken to that person in three weeks. Oh my goodness.” So there’s always a way and I think it’s really important that we create these rituals because that connectivity is really important.

I think the thing I’d like to focus on Johnny is this idea around how do we make sure that if we’re all hybrid or remote that we don’t create a bias in career opportunity for those people that maybe do go into the office and sit near the leader and so we’ve been thinking about that a lot. And in particular we actually launched a really wonderful initiative called the Proximity Initiative and particularly focusing on our diverse population. How do we ask our leaders actually spend time with somebody that is not like you, get proximate to that person.

So we have a program that allows for that a little bit because otherwise if we’re not intentional about bringing up our social justice goals in a really intentional like how are we going to achieve this work in a really thoughtful way. Especially in a hybrid world, I think we can lose some of the intentionality around that. So Cisco’s corporate vision is to power an inclusive future for all. I love that ’cause it can drive so many things in how I go about my work. But things like that proximity initiative, I just love that because I feel like it means that we have to as leaders as an added expectation on being more intentional about how we’re spending time, but also we’re just losing some of that bumping into somebody or somebody coming up and saying, “Oh hi, I heard you on the last company meeting, I just want to introduce myself.” We’re losing a lot of that and so I think those are some of the things that we are really trying to think about as an issue that we don’t let slide the progress that we’ve made.

Johnny Campbell:

Stephen, who’s listening in the chat just said that he had a workshop this morning on proximity bias. So you’re touching on topics that are pretty much resonating with our audience here, Mel on that point around some of the dangers here particularly those who are more marginalized in the workplace, have you looked at any data or aware of anything within your colleague population that would suggest that there are different biases and perhaps opportunities and then lack of opportunities for different folks based on how much remote working they’re doing or not? Have you looked into this as a challenge and its connection to retention?

Melanie Hayes:

Yeah, not in every region actually. We’re focusing on a couple of our countries on this particular topic and it’s really interesting. I think the issue, and I might be being contentious here, but the issue sometimes lies with the line manager.

So if you look at our sales business, and you’ll know this from a recruitment background, Johnny, people are used to being in five days a week. So, the pandemic was a real shift for some of our leaders. And now some of them are reverting back to type on, “I want people in the office five days a week or three days a week.” They’re going, “Well three days a week.” And actually if somebody’s not around, they’ll be missed in some of the talent conversations that we’re having because they’re not seeing what’s happening because they might be one or two tiers below that leader and that manager’s maybe not giving them more feedback around how they’re performing on what they’re doing. And I think in some parts we’ve had productivity issues. I’ve just been looking at the chat actually on some of the comments around that. In some parts we’ve had productivity issues because people are not interacting now as well when we’ve got some people in the office and some people out. So it’s creating this bias operation.

Johnny Campbell:

I know that when it comes to some of the myths out there, there’s a few myths and recently I was chatting to a bunch of people leaders. In a private conversation running very large people organizations, tens and hundreds of thousands and to a one they all conceded that the ones that had a policy, for example of work in the office X days all said, “Impossible to police.” The execs are happy that we have a policy on the ground, nobody’s enforcing it because it’s unenforceable. So that was one of the myths that’s out there, the enforcement versus the policy and the second around attrition levels. And I’m keen to hear what both of you have seen in the difference between early 22 and end of 22. I had folks sharing with me that early or first half of 22, attrition up around 20, 25% in tech businesses, but by the end of the year had dropped to five. Because largely attributed to the economy and fear and changes.

So you don’t see that in the papers, but is that a sense that either of you are seeing in your own organizations and other peer organizations that attrition levels have really dropped as 2022 ended? Is that a thing? Zohra, have you seen that in your own numbers?

Zohra Yafai:

Yeah. Yes, definitely. Thankfully, I think as we were looking at the Cisco numbers a while back, our numbers stayed just a little bit lower than the tech average, but we were monitoring them really closely. And then yeah, we’ve definitely received this shift and change and quite honestly, thank goodness, because running a talent acquisition team, my team are absolutely phenomenal. They’ve been warriors through the last two years of just really, it was unsustainable, I think the amount of attrition we were generally seeing in the tech sector. So we’re seeing it, but I think there’s a nuance there, Johnny. It depends on the type of skill, it depends on different countries. And so I think whilst we’re seeing maybe a shift, we’re still looking and monitoring and trying to understand that. So that we’re just making sure we’re retaining the right skills, that we’re moving the right skills internally as well. Because I do still think it might have slowed down on the whole, but there is nuance in there.

Johnny Campbell:

That’s true. Mel, you seeing something similar? Is there nuance?

Melanie Hayes:

Yeah, so you’re absolutely right. Beginning of 2022. So two things. We have a technology team business with about a thousand developers in Vietnam and they were targeted quite heavily because organizations that were based in India for example, realized that there were problems having their eggs all in one basket so to speak.

And from the recruitment side, so our tech recruitment business, all our recruiters were going to internal roles. So huge attrition at the beginning of the year. And I think two things and some of the things that we’re hearing from our clients particularly is that there’s a rebalancing in the expectation on salaries. We’re seeing that as an organization anyway just in the way that we’re operating. And there were some, and I don’t know if you saw this, Zohra, but there were some ridiculous expectations on salaries because the market was so hot. And so that’s balancing and that’s creating some leveling I think.

I think people are more cautious at the minute because there’s a lot in the news about the economic headwinds and what’s happening and so I think you would naturally be more cautious about making a decision to move. So yeah, there’s still lots of movement and this is what we are seeing in the work that we’re doing with our clients. Even when you are hearing about the loss of the big tech layoff, there’s still lots of movement. But I do think people are much more cautious and I do think there’s been a shift in this. I can move and double my salary and that’s going to happen.

Johnny Campbell:

I think there’s a disconnect between business leaders and their expectations of the talent market and the reality for the talent teams. I think the volumes of hiring may have dropped in areas because attrition has dropped and therefore your net replacements has gone down, but the growth roles may still be there, and the talent still doesn’t exist. So it may be harder to find if attrition’s dropping in other companies, it means it’s harder to move people and you have challenges of people’s income. I gave an example this morning of the parts of Eastern Europe outside the Euro zone you’ve seen interest rates in double digits, late double digits, which means the average person’s mortgage just went double last year.

So you can’t cut or even maintain salaries in the market. We had to increase salaries for engineers twice in Poland last year because they just couldn’t afford to live because their cost of living went through the roof. So different demographics, different parts of the world. Zohra, to your point, it’s not even. But Pat earlier on in the Fireside chat, I just want to come back to a point she made a point I think we’d all agree with is about trying to be open-minded to learning, recognizing that we don’t have all the answers, but we do learn. And I’d love to hear from both of you. We look back at 2022, what’s the one thing you learned that you’ll take into 23 that you think is going to help you? The thing that you know would’ve loved to known started 2022 you didn’t, but you’ve learned and taken out that year. Zohra for you, what would that be?

Zohra Yafai:

Oh God. For me, I would actually say just that process of not having the perfect crystal ball. This expectation, I wish I’d maybe embraced that more. My team know this, I say this all the time, “If you don’t try, you don’t know.” I think sometimes though that fear of like, “Gosh, we’ve got to really make sure we’re backing into the right solution here.” Look, let’s be honest, the last two years nobody had a crystal ball and I don’t think we have a crystal ball going forward. So for me, I think we pivoted halfway through the year to try and embrace that a little bit more. But I wish we’d started the year maybe a little bit more embracing of the idea of making sure that within our teams we’re creating that psychological safety so that somebody could say, “Hey look, I have crazy ideas. Should we try this thing out?” And maybe go for it.

And so certainly going into 2023, that’s one of the things I want to take forward. It’s not necessarily something I learned, but just to learn the importance of not feeling like we’ve got to get this right for our leadership teams and we’ve got to… I think creating that conversation with a business to say, “Look, we are going to try this and by the way, this is how we’re going to measure it right the way through. So if it feels like it’s going in the wrong direction, we’re going to pull it back, but we have to learn through this and learn with us.” So I think that would be the one thing I’d say, Johnny,

Johnny Campbell:

I’ve heard that really well described as the difference between great decisions and great outcomes. You can make a great decision and have a negative outcome. The decision was good. You can make a bad decision and have a great outcome, but it was a bad decision and it’s not getting confused, make good decisions, but sometimes the outcome won’t be great. And be accepting and have the safety of that. And that’s where you, rather than being a idea of let’s take crazy risks. No, no, no, let’s make really good decisions, but accept that they won’t all work out. Having that safety is so important. And you saw at the top of the event the survey said 73% said this will be year volatility and increased change. So that is definitely the year to apply this Zohra. Mel, for you, if you look back at what you learned in 2022, and you’ll probably bring into 23. What’s the main thing you take from the last year or so?

Melanie Hayes:

So I just want to pick out on Zohra’s point actually this whole thing about being much more comfortable with just experimenting and learning fast and actually if things don’t work, move on. But I think my biggest thing was, I think I underestimated the amount of training that we need to give managers and how we need to equip managers to operate differently in the world that we’re in now. That’s changing, we’ve got different teams. So much more investment for us this year in how we’re developing our managers across the whole piece.

Johnny Campbell:

Yeah, we saw on the survey still so many companies not pulling formal processes in place. We’ve all aware of the survey to say something like 70 or 80% of employee engagement impact is down to the manager and people leave managers, not organizations. So I think in all of these efforts we got to remember the importance of that leader, building great leaders, supporting great leaders, and having that kind of mindset. I’d love to keep going. I know both of you are busy. Our audience has been patiently sitting through the last hour and a half and throwing loads of questions in, and comments. We don’t get time to go through all of them, but I want to thank you both, Zohra and Mel for taking the time out to share with our audience here today. It’s been fantastic. Let’s come back and continue the conversation on another STLive and thank you both for sharing.

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