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Career Development Gets a Charge at Sears Credit

May 1, 1995
Attention to career development is important at any stage of a company's life cycle. But as Sears Credit learned, it's especially critical after a major reorganization. The company's strategic plan prompted the Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based firm to close approximately 50 small units, expand nine others, offer a major voluntary retirement program and accept third-party credit cards in competition with the Sears-Charge card—all of which impacted the careers of Sears Credit's associates. To better align associates' skills and work loads with the reengineered company, Sears Credit launched a major career-development initiative. The process Sears Credit went through is discussed below by Peg O'Herron, manager of training and development for Sears Credit, and Peggy Simonsen, president of Career Directions, a career-development consulting firm based in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, that Sears brought in to assist in the process.

Reorganization required new career strategies.
Sears Credit is responsible for all credit transactions in the retail stores and other field units of Sears Merchandise Group. In 1990, the firm employed about 13,000 people at 50 field locations. By 1994, consolidation had reduced the number of locations to 20 and shrunk the work force to 10,000. Although the firm closed several units, some of those remaining grew tremendously—from an average of 350 associates to 1,000 associates per operating center.

This reorganization had many career implications:

  • Virtually all jobs were newly created or significantly redefined
  • No longer were there career paths to emulate due to the number of new and redefined jobs and the elimination of others
  • There was a need for outside hiring at all levels to obtain new talent immediately. This was a major change for a culture that traditionally promoted from within and wasn't used to external hiring
  • There was a need to develop new skills in the current work force to succeed in the new environment
  • There was a need to develop "bench" strength of associates prepared to fill future openings.

To respond to the major cultural, staffing and structural changes at Sears Credit, senior management worked with human resources and training professionals to establish the company's overriding goals. The group determined that it wanted the company to have more open communication about career opportunities, the development needs of individuals and new staffing procedures.

The group also established that Sears Credit needed to help its associates and managers reframe their mindset—from "the company will take care of me" to a proactive attitude that redefined success in terms of what's important to the individual rather than how fast one moves up the ladder. People would need to understand, not just hear, that career development wouldn't be limited to promotions.

The company also needed to redefine responsibility. Not only would associates have to take on new responsibility for managing their own careers, but managers also would need to recognize their role as coaches in supporting associate development. The organization, too, represented by HR practitioners and senior management, had responsibility to provide information and resources so associates could take the initiative. In short, Sears Credit needed a partnership to ensure that individuals at all levels could continually add value to the company.

The group also determined that, to move beyond words to action, associates needed to know their skills and understand their marketability, and also know how to identify opportunities for development. They needed a planning process to create goals that included ones other than promotions. And to be viable, goals had to be linked to the business needs and the direction of the changing organization.

Finally, HR, trainers and senior managers realized that everyone needed to break away from "next job" thinking and take a longer, broader perspective of their careers and career-development options.

Planning the project.
With these goals in mind, the organization formed a project planning team led by us—the manager of training and development at Sears Credit and the president of Career Directions. We began planning in January 1992 and anticipated to roll out the process in May. We felt it was important for both internal consultants from HR, training and senior management, and the external consultant to partner throughout the process.

We recognized that for a major cultural change to occur, Sears Credit needed a comprehensive, organizationwide career-development process. And each process component had to contribute to creating organizational culture change and promoting individual growth.

Some firms start wherever they can when launching career-development systems. We decided instead to complete as many of the components as possible and ensure senior management support before launching associate and manager training.

In fact, a key element was sponsorship by senior managers. Jane Thompson, Sears' executive vice president of credit, was a leading champion of the career-development initiative and provided periodic updates for the organization throughout the roll-out. "In Sears Credit we had a number of elements of a high-performance team," she says. "We had a strong commitment to performance evaluations that entailed a real dialogue between the manager and the associate. We had a commitment to training. We had gainsharing in many of our units. What we were missing, however, was a chance to make it clear to people what the career opportunities are, what it takes to take advantage of opportunities and move ahead, and what skills are needed to do one's job better and prepare for the future."

Defining the skills and competencies needed for success within the restructured jobs was another key element of the process. We defined the competencies after surveying associates and reviewing their responses with managers. They fell into five major categories: business knowledge and contribution to financial results; leadership; customer focus; individual effectiveness; and associate development.

After identifying detailed competencies and skills and communicating them to the organization during career-development workshops, we developed manager/peer-assessment and self-assessment inventories. These allow associates to identify growth areas for themselves. We then expanded the annual career discussion that associates had with their managers and separated them from the appraisal review. We also made the career discussion optional. This allows associates to take the initiative in leading the discussion and scheduling it at a time that best fits their personal goal-setting process.

Because this proactive approach to career development was a relatively new concept for all associates in the organization, we planned training to help reframe thinking and give people tools to use in their career planning. All exempt associates participated in a two-day workshop, "Managing Your Career Within Sears Credit." The workshop incorporated new models of career development, self-assessment activities, organizational information and a development-planning process.

Managers attended an additional workshop—"Managing Career Development"—because they needed career-coaching skills for discussions with their subordinates as well as advice on how to manage their own careers. Although participation in some other company programs is voluntary, we mandated the introductory training on this issue for all salaried staff, after which associates could choose whether to participate further in the career-development process. However, further involvement of managers whose associates request career discussions was mandatory.

Since the old, known ways had changed, Sears Credit had to adopt a more open philosophy about opportunities and company information. We needed HR systems such as position descriptions, organizational competencies and a new compensation structure to support career-development efforts and reinforce the overall message of development to meet company needs. This prompted us to write position summaries of the many new jobs that the organizational restructuring created and make them available to all associates via E-mail. In the past, Sears had treated this information as confidential. HR managers safeguarded it, and it wasn't available to associates.

We also created a data bank of associates' desired career goals to be used for organizational planning and staffing decisions. The associate and his or her manager develop the information for the data bank. The input includes details such as, "job next aspired to," "preferred location" or "education needed." This information is available to match against specific jobs in specific locations and to assist in planning training for a particular population.

One of the most important components of the career-development system was a new compensation program. When the message is that development doesn't necessarily mean promotion, associates perceive a conflict if a highly rigid compensation structure rewards only upward moves. Tom Cataruzolo, director of HR, spearheaded a change to a broadbanding compensation program that rewards developmental moves previously considered "lateral" and not entitled to a promotional increase (see "Broadbanding Compensation Aligns With New Career Development").

Communication was, and continues to be, essential throughout the career-development process. Once we determined the initial design, components, responsibilities and deadlines, we created a brochure to communicate these aspects first to managers at a semi-annual national meeting, then to all exempt Sears Credit associates nationwide. In addition, we had continual discussion and correspondence from the executive vice president.

To continue communications, Sears Credit issues a quarterly newsletter entitled "Career Developments." The newsletter highlights various segments of Sears Credit to familiarize associates with opportunities; introduces associates and describes directions their careers take; reviews career-related books; and delivers messages from management.

Career development process proves positive.
Six months after all exempt associates and their managers participated in training sessions, we conducted surveys and focus groups to ensure that the program's design met associates' and managers' needs. We also used surveys to collect base-line data that would allow us to measure the impact of the career-development initiative and to determine if we achieved our program objectives. We did.

Most associates now are taking responsibility for their own career management. In fact, 93% report they have specific career goals and a plan to reach those goals. They also report that they're more aware and realistic about their interests, strengths and development needs, and that they're more knowledgeable about the competencies needed for different levels of responsibility and compensation bands.

Approximately 80% of associates have had career discussions with their managers, and a majority of those recorded their goals into the database to communicate them to HR for staffing decisions. We've put in place a systematic method of accessing associates' goals and managers' recommendations for job placement.

Managers are more knowledgeable about associate career goals and are involved in associate development. A forthcoming development guide will provide even more creative development options and resources to managers and associates. Also, senior executives are involved in planning and actively supporting career development throughout the organization.

Sears Credit continues to experience change. New opportunities and challenges surface rapidly, requiring associates to be proactive in their current assignments and in their career planning. The company has learned that a comprehensive career-development process is a critical contributor to organizational success, especially after major restructuring. Support for individuals such as that provided by a career-development process, results in a motivated work force eager to accomplish business initiatives.

Personnel Journal, May 1995, Vol. 74, No. 5, pp. 103-106.