Moving Up, Over Rather Than Out

Career changes within the American Red Cross were predominantly employee-driven 15 years ago. Today, talent movement, leadership development and succession planning all help the Red Cross match employees to skillsets they are interested in within the organization.

Leadership development has been one way that Red Cross employees have moved over by moving up. LEAD, Red Cross’ leadership development program, has welcomed in four classes since 2012, totaling about 100 employees. The program is three years long and employees hold their current positions while participating, according to Melissa Hurst, senior vice president and chief human resources officer.

Year One focuses on strategic leadership, working with subject experts and developing a business plan. Personal career development is the emphasis for year two followed by specific skills and competencies within the organization in year three. About 20 percent of participants have moved across department lines through the program. Identifying necessary skills and development needs has been built into the organization’s annual performance review process.

Supervisors at the Washington, D.C.-headquartered organization work with employees moving into new roles with development needs. The organization’s learning hub, featuring online classes and access to lectures, is used in designing an employee’s curriculum. “There is a lot of, I think, self-assessment that they do facilitated by the organization and the coaching and mentoring aspects of the program and getting 360 feedback,” Hurst said.

Red Cross managers look for employees in early or mid-level management across disciplines. Key traits Red Cross looks for, according to Hurst, are leadership skills, agility for learning, display of core values such as compassion and collaboration, and an interest in developing skills in a way that will lead to them becoming a cross-functioning manager. “We want people who are sitting in a chair today who want to lead and want a skillset,” Hurst said. “We want people to cross the line [of disciplines].”

Assessments on fit are made prior to employees being welcomed into the program, Hurst said. Employees are continually assessed on how they work with others and their leadership style during their time in LEAD. Some employees, during that time, might realize that the program is not for them or decide that they don’t want to leave their original department and will exit the program to continue on their previous career path.

Participants in LEAD spend a lot of time with their peers from all around the lines of organizational business and across the country -that has been identified as a valuable aspect of the program. Buy-in from top-level managers has also been of benefit, with leaders including the chief financial officer and general counsel coming in to lead sessions, share their personal styles and mentor. “It’s really all hands-on,” said Hurst.

A lot of the cross-discipline movement seen at Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), too, has a leadership tilt. Movement within the organization’s 1,100 affiliates leads to situations in which a director of operations at one club might take an executive director role at another, necessitating supplemental trainings in skills such as fundraising and development, according to Thomas Rajan, senior vice president of strategic leadership development of the Atlanta, Ga.based organization.

BGCA is building out its readiness program for emerging leaders, a program targeted at employees who could one day fill a C-suite role or even a level below. Aligning competencies with the work BGCA is trying to accomplish through its mission and broadening scopes of skillsets are program priorities. Funding savvy, resource development, the ability to engage with the board and tenacity are skills sought after, Rajan said.

Rajan described himself as a big believer in rotational development assignments as a means of developing a variety of abilities at high levels. Nonprofits’ tendency to keep workers where they excel instead of exposing them to different things creates a dearth of leadership talent, he said. For-profits are more likely to work emerging talent in various functions even if they are a star in one particular field.

A background in the for-profit sector, aviation specifically, led Rajan toward an interest in “professionalizing the profession” of nonprofit executive. Rajan used the example of a pilot who works his way up to flying a 747, but doesn’t cease training and certification once he reaches a top level. “So if we’re talking about some of these critical roles that are there in social services… why wouldn’t we look at some sort of professional credential that comes with a role like that,” he posed.

BGCA is still years away from making the hypothetical certification process a reality, Rajan said. Still, developing on necessary functional capacities and creating a system that builds on an ongoing commitment to learning is seen as a next frontier for professional development at the organization.

The up-and-over move is common across sectors, according to Waffles Pi Natusch, president of The Barrett Group, a Warwick, R.I.-based career consultancy working with executive-level employees. The reasons for it are simple -companies and organizations look for stability in filling positions and the notion of promoting a strong team member, even if the individual isn’t versed in the responsibilities of the new position, is appealing.

Identifying leadership at a charity is different from finding leadership in the for-profit sector, Natusch suggested. Traits such as charisma and an image of ethics are more important in nonprofits, while the merits of a for-profit leader can be more tangibly noted on spreadsheets. “Nonprofits, at the top, that person is the face and image of what they’re trying to promote and who they are trying to be…the money won’t come if the image isn’t there.”

Employees, too, might also be looking for change even if they wish to remain in the sector. Many attorneys, for instance, get burned out during their careers. There are peaks and valleys in careers in which some people might hit their stride or lose their edge. “Every day, I pour a big cup of coffee and read 60 or 70 resumes from people who want to make a change,” Natusch said.

Change by way of up-and-over movement might seem appealing to both parties, but it isn’t without its challenges and risks. There is a large political component to such career moves, Natusch said, as the employee is being rewarded for work that is outside the background and experience that a position might typically require. The Barrett Group has had clients who moved up and over, struggled with developing the necessary skills and lost their new job when they could have just stayed in their old one.

Such scenarios are also harmful to organizations, which is why it’s important for those in the position of hiring to look to boards and other advisory voices not directly connected to the day-to-day of the organization for advice. “A lot of times, people would be talked off that ledge,” Natusch said.