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African Americans Take Control of Their Careers

April 1, 1994
Related Topics: Career Development, Diversity, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
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In 1990, the Caterpillar business unit in Joliet, Illinois, underwent a massive reorganization. As it organized around component products, the company created new job titles and promoted approximately 1% of its work force. But not one African-American employee was promoted in that effort, despite the fact that African Americans make up 15% of Caterpillar's work force. Many of them are graduates from the company's apprenticeship programs; some have completed special certification programs. Some are entrepreneurs outside of the company; and some have attained associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees. They have been willing to go the extra mile—and in several cases have done so—but their efforts seemed fruitless when the company reorganized.

The minority workers became frustrated, angry and bitter. Individuals who were reserved about what they would label discrimination now were calling management's actions discriminatory. At a time when the company needed to forge loyalty and shared ownership from its employees, the African Americans confronted the company head-on. Banding together, the salaried and management employees met at an African- American area church to outline their concerns.

According to Ben Jones, a manufacturing manager at the Joliet plant who is African American, the group perceived that they weren't being considered for promotional opportunities, weren't being evaluated fairly and didn't receive the same mentoring as white employees.

For some of their concerns, they had the statistics to back them up. Records of promotional activity alluded to the fact that discrimination always had been a part of the system. Although EEOC guidelines provided opportunities for more minorities to enter the door, no plan for continued upward mobility existed within the organization.

The group of African Americans considered various avenues for voicing and resolving their concerns. Because of the statistical information, there was some talk of a class-action lawsuit. The group chose, however, to concentrate its efforts on finding a cooperative solution to the situation instead.

Through a cross-functional team of eight people chosen by the group of African Americans, the minority employees presented the information that they'd gathered to the plant manager. After hearing the concerns, the plant manager suggested that the African Americans organize as a company-sponsored team (as opposed to a disgruntled group off site) that would report directly to him on a quarterly basis. (As part of the unit's reorganization, management encouraged all employees to form Trust and Teamwork (T'NT) teams with co-workers whenever they had problems to solve. By forming this type of team, the African Americans would have access to resources and a forum for proposing ideas and getting them supported.) Also, the team would enable the African Americans to assist the organization in better integrating the group into the work force.

The group that had met off site decided by consensus to follow the route proposed by the plant manager and form a T'NT team. The team members hoped that through their efforts, perceptions about minority workers would change, and Caterpillar in Joliet would be a more conducive environment not only for themselves but for minority employees in the future.

Most of the salaried and management African Americans believed that at least some good would come out of the team's cooperative efforts. There were a few who didn't join the team, however. Some of the naysayers expressed belief that the T'NT team was simply a pacifier to divert a lawsuit. Others simply were skeptical that the team could bring about real progress.

Also, there was some opposition to the formation of the African-American team by other groups. "Some upper managers eyed the motive of the group with suspicion," says Jones. "They thought that our plans might be hostile."

In addition, the company's female, Hispanic and unionized workers expressed opposition to the team because of their exclusion. The African-American group feared that including those with different perspectives might stifle open communication and hinder the team's progress. "The plant manager indicated that he wouldn't dictate who we included in our group," says Jones, who became the team's facilitator. "[He also said that] if any other group came to him and desired to form a similar team, he would allow and encourage it." To date, no other groups have done so.

Employees seek outside help in developing the program.
As a first step toward more affirmative action in the plant, the African-American T'NT team members invited business-unit managers to meet with them in an open forum. They shared their concerns, including the plant's statistics regarding the hiring and promotion of minorities, as well as the team's mission statement and goals.

One of the African Americans' complaints to the business-unit managers was that after they followed the advice of a manager on how to get ahead, the rules would change. The managers and the minority workers determined that to remedy this, a formal career-development process was needed, one that would keep both employees and their supervisors abreast of what was needed for advancement, as well as what had been done to meet those needs.

The team won upper management's support for creating a career-development system. The numbers the team presented showed the executives that work was needed to improve the upward mobility of minorities. The senior staff expressed a desire to work on changing the numbers. In addition, statistics revealed to the executives that approximately 85% to 90% of the facility's work force would be eligible for retirement within the next five to 10 years, creating a need to prepare current and incoming employees for promotions. Also, the emergence of sophisticated manufacturing technology presented the need to expand the skill level of all workers. A formal career-development process could help fulfill all of these needs.

So, as a team, the African Americans began researching what they needed to include in their formalized plan. The team decided that it should include assessment of skills, individual goal setting and training to improve any skills that were lacking.

Because all of the African-American employees on the T'NT team needed to maintain the quality of their work while participating on the team, they decided to seek outside help to design and implement the career-development process. They brought in Peggy Simonsen from Chicago-based Career Directions, Inc., a career-development consulting firm.

"The numbers the team of African Americans presented showed the executives that work was needed to improve the upward mobility of minorities."

Simonsen, who usually is brought into a company by its human resources department, sought out an internal consultant and partner from Caterpillar's HR department. Cathy Wells, both a member of the African-American team and an experienced trainer at Caterpillar, naturally fit that role. Wells worked closely with Simonsen in the career-development planning and implementation process. As someone on the inside, she worked at promoting the thought process needed for the new system, getting proposals through and basically making sure that everything came together.

Career-development requires a culture change.
Simonsen and Wells realized that for a career-development process to be successful for the African Americans, everybody, including the senior executives, needed to adopt a new paradigm for career development. The business-unit manager's staff, made up completely of white males who have a minimum of 20 years' experience, all had risen through Caterpillar's ranks. The upper managers' concept of career development was to receive regular promotions for high performance, to accept assignments as given and to allow someone to make career decisions for them. The two traditional areas of promotion were to positions as assistant managers or small-branch-facilities managers. But both niches were eliminated in the reorganization. The managers were therefore concerned that a new career-development process would lead to unfulfilled expectations.

The consultant quieted their concerns. She communicated a fresh approach to career development:

  • It should be employee-driven so that they're empowered to manage their own careers
  • Employees should consider many types of career goals, not just promotions
  • One's career should be considered in stages, rather than next-job thinking. This model helps people see the tremendous leadership opportunities in a team structure, even though there may not be a manager title
  • Individuals should link their career goals with the direction, needs and realities of the company. People who will have opportunities in the future are those who plan their careers strategically, positioning themselves with the skills, competencies and type of experience that the company will need for success in the future.

The implementation of such a career-development process required assessing and developing the skills of African-American salaried employees. The company had solid technical-training programs, but the team felt a need to assess and improve soft skills. The business-unit manager's staff was enlisted to define competencies needed by everyone for success in the new culture at Caterpillar-Joliet (see "Training Was Built on a Foundation of Defined Competencies"). Although not specific to particular jobs or component projects, the identified competencies served as predictable targets for developmental planning and actions. In addition to the detailed analysis that had been compiled for technical skills, employees now had some developmental targets.

Along with a formal assessment, the competencies also served as a needs assessment for the design of the skill-development portion of the project. Twenty-five salaried African-American employees from the T'NT team volunteered to participate in a pilot project. They attended an introductory session where they responded to a pre-project survey, were introduced to the concept of proactive career management and learned about the components of the pilot project.

Each participant then completed two validated instruments. The Team Management Index (TMI) measured work style and preferences and helped individuals understand team functions and relationships. The Management and Leadership Profile (MLP) measured skills on multiple dimensions of management or leadership roles. This is a 360-degree instrument, involving the employee, his or her manager, peers, team members or direct reports. Participants received group and individual interpretations of the results and a comprehensive printout of their profiles.

The next component was a full-day Career Management Seminar. Because of the difficulty of coordinating everyone's schedule during the week, the seminar had to be held on a Saturday, on the employees' own time. The seminar covered models and concepts of career development, based on Simonsen's workbook, Managing Your Career Within Your Organization. Emphasis was placed on the importance of reputation and the need for upward communication. Participants had the opportunity to air some concerns in a supportive, but directed, environment. Based on the developmental needs identified in the assessments and the choices made in career activities during the workshop, participants began to prepare a Career Development Plan.

Participants developed varied goals. Among them were: job enrichment, personal development, promotion and improved relationships with supervisors. Many began to realize the leadership opportunities provided by the new team structure for the first time.

The MLP scores provided an objective measure of their soft skills. Now, they knew in which areas they had to improve. The Team Management Index was useful in clarifying conflicts in relationships, employees' work-style preferences and the demands of the job.

Some patterns emerged from the competencies and from the MLP assessment. As individuals started their career-development plans, areas for skills training were identified. The most useful topics selected for all the participants were assertive communication, conflict resolution, team building and linking skills, and goal setting for individual and team approaches. The consultant scheduled four two-hour sessions to introduce these needed skills. Participants then were encouraged to attend additional training at the local community college or outside seminars, which were resources provided by Wells.

Training extends to all employees.
The initial goal of the African-American T'NT team was to extend the career-development training to all team members. After the pilot project, however, the company saw the worth of the program for employees of all ethnic backgrounds. With the flattening of the organization, the career-development training could help all workers assess their skills, identify what areas they need to strengthen, and encourage the employees to be more proactive in their career development. The post-pilot training sessions began in March and are scheduled weekly. Between 16 and 20 people constitute each session.

The project participants also concluded that managers should be similarly oriented. In fact, on a post-project questionnaire, the only area in which participants didn't see improvement was in their managers' attitude toward career development.

So, in response to the concern of the pilot group, Simonsen designed and implemented a managers' training, titled Managing Career Development. She conducted three half-day sessions to introduce managers (all white) to the same career-development concepts that the pilot African-American group had learned. It prepared managers to have meaningful career discussions with their staffs, and to have them think about their own career issues in the new culture.

Initially, the company trained only managers of the African Americans in the pilot group. However, as the decision was made to extend career-development training to all employees, it became clear that all managers would benefit from the sessions.

One of the functions that managers learned to provide in the process was reality testing. In addition to coaching employees, managers are expected to give feedback on how realistic employees' goals are, given the needs and realities of the company.

Some short-term success stories can be reported as a result of the career-development training and increased communication between managers and their African-American workers. African Americans are taking a more proactive role in managing how they're perceived by others, and as a result, there has been noticeable improvement in the promotion of minorities (see "This Is Now").

"More African Americans have been promoted in the process since [the team's] inception," says Jones. "I don't think that the team perceives today that the numbers are as good as they could be, but they certainly are better. I don't think anyone would deny that."

Managers are beginning to play a greater part in the process as well. One manager in particular, as a result of the African Americans' open forum, offered to meet with the team every month, or as often as needed. He followed up his offer by meeting monthly with African Americans working in his building, as well as with other minorities who wished to attend, to share company strategies and concerns.

All participants viewed the effort as an excellent informal mentoring process. There were reports that other managers also began communicating one-on-one more with their

African-American employees. Bill Stran, for example, who is the human resources manager and a member of the business-unit manager's staff, has taken on some mentees and champions the mentor process to others in the company.

Changes have been made in the administration process to correlate with the new career-development system. For example, employees now receive reviews quarterly rather than annually. Also, a white department head, who is a member of the business-unit manager's staff, has become an affirmative-action advocate. When supervisors discuss promotional decisions, he ensures that all possible candidates are considered. He periodically sits in on the African-American T'NT team meetings to keep abreast of issues that concern the members.

"Wheels have been put in motion for human resources development that can bring some long-term benefit to the company and its employees."

In addition, the African-American team has expanded its efforts into the Joliet community, focusing on changing the image that Caterpillar has received in some circles and preparing minority students for future employment. The team has adopted a school, joined up with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America and coordinated a minority scholarship program.

Certainly, some wheels have been put in motion for human resources development that can bring some long-term benefits to the company and its employees. Of course, all involved realize that the process is only beginning. Continued evolution of the culture and implementation is needed for ongoing change within the company. Team members continue to meet regularly and hold themselves accountable for their part in the communication and development process. They share aspirations and encourage each other to engage in informal mentoring.

What could have led to greater animosity between minorities and management instead has resulted in increased collaboration at Caterpillar. "It hasn't been perfect," says Jones. "But I believe that more has been accomplished by our being up-front with the administration than would have been accomplished by any other means."

Personnel Journal, April 1994, Vol.73, No. 4, pp. 99-108.

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