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Amoco Primes the Talent Pump

February 1, 1996
Related Topics: Career Development, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
A pipeline. It's essential to an oil company's business. But without also having the right pipeline of people to make the business run smoothly, no amount of pipeline—on its own—will ever make the business successful. It takes the right people, in the right jobs, at the right time. It also takes a careful balancing of individual skills and aspirations with business needs.

For Chicago-based Amoco Corp., a rapidly changing environment, increased competition, new technologies, sophisticated customer demands, and emerging and declining markets coerced the company into stripping out layers of management, restructuring, and attempting to become more nimble and quick to respond.

But, as you may imagine, this has caused a significant impact on employees—who must learn new technologies and systems, adopt processes to meet global customer needs and effectively perform as members of empowered and responsive teams. These rapid changes demand new employee competencies which, in turn, underscore the importance of individual development.

In principle and on paper, development sounds great, but Amoco had to ask how an organization can turn development into something more than a nice campaign. What actually makes the difference between a career-development initiative no one pays much attention to, and an integrated system of policies and practices that commands employees' interest and participation? How do you approach career development for rapid buy-in?

Amoco decides on a long-term, career-management system.
Amoco has given a lot of thought to these questions. As an employer of 40,000 employees worldwide, Amoco has developed and implemented a career-management system based on the strategic renewal campaign of the company's chairman, H. Laurance "Larry" Fuller.

In the late '80s, Fuller began an overhaul of the company, intended not as a quick fix but as a comprehensive redirection. The idea was to look far down the road at Amoco's possibilities and obstacles. Lots of organizational changes ensued. The company went from three operating companies to zero. It abolished a level of management. It decentralized strategic planning and decision-making. So, rather than being a centrally governed company, it's instead managed by 18 business groups. In the process, Amoco revamped reward systems and put new performance-management and executive-development systems in place.

But there were balancing issues to contend with. The new system would have to balance business needs with employees' needs for personal growth and career satisfaction. Also, the system would need to strengthen the shift toward employees taking more responsibility for their own careers. And finally, because Amoco's operations are far-flung and diverse, any new system would need to be flexible; a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn't work. The company never had a one-size-fits-all philosophy to career management previously, and it confirmed early on in the design stage that a standard plan wouldn't work for everyone. Each operating business needed to be able to tailor the career-management system to meet its specific needs.

Amoco's Exploration and Production (E&P) sector, a worldwide unit, championed the career-management effort. E&P decided that without a task force of committed, high-level line managers (with support from HR and organizational development staff), a viable system would be hard to create. So, in the fall of 1990, Amoco's three former operating companies commissioned high-level steering committees to design a career-management system to mesh with and advance the philosophy of strategic renewal.

The E&P sector was undergoing significant change—as evidenced by an evolving definition of career success and the rapid shifting of technologies and needed competencies. In its first meeting, the newly constituted sector task force acknowledged that an entirely different approach to development would be necessary. Wary of making a hasty dive into poorly charted waters, the task force began by constructing a framing model for the career-management system-to-be.

The framing model identified the organizational needs the career-management system must fulfill, such as strategic staffing—getting the right people with the right skills in the right jobs. It also had to accommodate employee needs, such as work satisfaction, opportunity for challenge and growth, and skill enhancement. Finally, the career-management system needed to identify and coincide with existing complementary management practices, such as compensation, promotion guidelines and performance management (appraisal).

The group vice president for international operations chaired the task force, and employees from mid- to senior-level management also participated. In all, the career-management system took two and a half years to develop. The task force met monthly during the formative stage and continued to meet for another year and a half after implementation.

Defining the scope of the career-management system.
Early work with the framing model led the steering committee to focus on identifying and developing competencies critical to the future. In this process, the committee didn't identify what those competencies should be. Rather, through the process, it wanted people to pick out what competencies were important as they emerged. The company wanted people to begin to understand the direction of the company and then interpret for themselves which kinds of skills they needed to develop. This focus became the framework for defining the scope of the career-management system and ensuring it retained the underlying goal: improved business performance.

The sector task force recognized that to meet employees' needs and expectations (gleaned from surveys, interviews and focus groups), it would have to obtain considerable employee input from the start. Soon, each task force member was supported by an "advisory board" of employees with whom he or she could meet between monthly task force meetings to get ideas and feedback. This resulted in the rapid formation of a loosely woven, but extremely effective, partnership of approximately 500 individuals from all walks of Amoco life.

Employees either volunteered or were chosen to be on the advisory boards. They suggested the preliminary format for the individual development plan and told the steering committee exactly what questions should be on it. Everyone involved wanted the plan to be as pertinent and as helpful as possible in guiding employees to manage their own careers.

How career development happens at Amoco.
Amoco Career Management (ACM)—the company's career- management system—has four cornerstones: education, assessment, development planning and outcomes. An all-employee meeting (led by each of the business unit management teams to ensure early managerial buy-in) got the ball rolling at each Amoco site.

Next, the company offered employees a voluntary half-day educational program, called Exploring ACM. From 60% to 90% of employees in most business units opted for this introductory training. Their supervisors or team leaders took a mandatory two-day workshop, called Supporting Employee Development.

In subsequent training, employees conducted a self assessment that addressed both individual skills and company goals. They did this in a workshop setting and could choose either one or two voluntary workshops in which to complete the assessment. The first workshop focused on the employee's current job and was linked to the existing performance-management system. Supervisors or team leaders filled out a form for each employee who took a workshop. It helped workers figure out what's important to them about their jobs, and what their strengths and weaknesses were. This helped them identify their career goals.

The other workshop, Maximizing Career Choices, designed by Conceptual Systems Inc., focused on future career planning, positions and job enrichment. HR managers reported employee participation in both of these self-assessment courses ran high.

Now, for corporate information and job posting, Amoco offers a powerful interactive tool—the Amoco Self-Nomination Application Process, or ASNAP. With this worldwide job-canvassing system (which runs on mainframes and local area networks throughout Amoco), employees can see and apply for jobs electronically right from their own computers. ASNAP not only broadens the pool of candidates for a wide variety of job openings; it also serves as a real-time information resource for employees wishing to learn more about emerging skills and competencies. Thousands of employees consult ASNAP yearly.

The nitty-gritty of development.
The development planning element of ACM centers on a career discussion held between each employee and his or her team leader. To this important discussion the employee brings a completed individual development plan describing specific career goals and action plans. The team leader, in turn, brings a clearly articulated team development strategy, detailing the team's projected direction and challenges, as well as needed competencies.

In this way, the employee and the team leader contribute equally to the career discussion. Out of this talk comes a recap of the individual development plan—reflecting organizational as well as personal realities. After the team leader signs off on the plan, an employee may choose to distribute the form to others for review. Finally, outcomes—as well as actions to achieve them—are identified. These can include job enrichment, job change (such as rotation or special assignments) or moving on to other outside opportunities.

Other HR initiatives support career development.
ACM's purpose is to help individuals align their abilities and aspirations with company requirements in an aggressive and ever-adapting partnership. Thus, success at Amoco is beginning to be measured in terms of contributions to units and teams, rather than by rapidity of promotion. Competency, not longevity, is rewarded.

As a system, ACM is integrated with several other HR practices that support this approach—particularly Amoco's continuous improvement (or progress) initiative. Launched before ACM, this initiative supports Amoco's work team development strategy. The continuous improvement process makes each team responsible for identifying its customers and their needs. Skill and competency requirements flow from this identification of customer needs, not the other way around. Thus, employees are expected to undertake their personal development planning in the broader context of business opportunities and challenges.

The corporate recruiting system represents another HR practice into which ACM was integrated. And the process of behavioral interviewing, used for external recruiting, was taught to team leaders and employees so they could use it internally.

Each of those HR practices that add strength to the company's overarching message of strategic renewal has been pressed into service with ACM. Collectively, these practices form a powerful and visible system of interlocking support, guidance and focus for employees at all levels.

Progress report: Career management program helps people match skills and interests to company needs.
After the ACM process had been in place for one year, Amoco surveyed employees to see how the process was working. In short, the results showed significant improvement in employee perceptions, and higher-than-expected involvement in career-management practices.

The survey indicated nearly half the employees had taken a self-assessment workshop and had a career discussion with their team leader. Because there had been no formal career-management process in place before ACM, few employees could methodically plot their careers in conjunction with company plans. The upturn in these types of discussions has been dramatic.

The survey also indicated a quarter of the employees who responded had fully completed an individual development plan, and 60% felt Amoco had an effective process for developing employees (vs. 34% prior to ACM rollout). Perhaps more importantly, most employees indicated a belief that this process was supported by management. Although the survey did point out some areas for improvement, the overall message was clearly positive.

The company culture around career management has been enhanced through the development of this program. Amoco employees are taking charge of their careers and the company has a better pipeline of people with the right skills in the right jobs at the right time.

Personnel Journal, February 1996, Vol. 75, No. 2, pp. 79-84.

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