Most people want to progress in their careers, but not everyone wants to become a leader. That’s why Telstra has reimagined its hierarchy and talent progression pathways.
Josh is an engineer and has been working for his company for five years. A management position is going in his department and although he has never aspired to be a leader, he figures this is his shot for more money and a corner office, so he throws his hat in the ring.
His application comes attached with a glowing recommendation from his manager praising him as one of the best engineers she has seen at the company. It seems like a no-brainer; you offer him the role.
Initially he’s excited. He’s loving his new job title and that extra cash in the bank, but within a few months, his excitement wanes. He’s finding himself tied up in meetings, and he’s constantly having to mediate workplace politics.
He’s too far removed from the operational engineering work that he loves, and he starts micromanaging those in his team and offering little feedback to help them improve. As a result, his team starts to resent him and engagement drops.
Josh is representative of many people who hold leadership positions today. They’re sitting in their corner office, unhappy, because that’s the only progression pathway that was offered to them, and everyone suffers as a result.
The leadership team at Telstra didn’t want this to be the reality of its leaders, so it got to work on a big transformation project to change up the way it developed and progressed talent.
Are you a leader of work or a leader of people?
The decision to transform Telstra’s progression streams was made four years ago and was borne from a set of key business objectives. That included a desire to get products and services to market faster; to be more responsive to customers’ needs; and to lower costs and increase efficiency, says Alex Badenoch, Group Executive Transformation, Communications and People at Telstra.
“We really wanted to simplify how we did work and how our employees experienced work,” she says.
That meant adopting agile work practices for almost 17,000 employees (not including its field or retail workers).
“Our structures are very flexible, rather than hardwiring people into a particular line of work that they can’t get out of.” – Alex Badenoch
“Many organisations contain agile [working] to their product development or technology teams. We use agile at scale as a way of working across Telstra.”
This saw the de-layering of Telstra’s traditional hierarchy and the creation of groups and chapters, headed up by ‘leaders of work’ and ‘leaders of people’.
“Groups are where the work gets done. A group leader is a leader of work. Chapters are where the people are housed, cared for and nurtured. A chapter area lead is the leader of people.”
Neither leader is more important than the other, she adds. That’s an important message to send to employees who want to see viable progression opportunities, no matter their area of expertise.
“The two [leaders] are deeply connected and work in partnership to deliver outcomes,” says Badenoch. “If I’m a group owner and I’m responsible for building a new product, let’s say, then I have to be able to say, ‘I need three people with this skill, two people with that skill and one person with this skill.’ And I work with the chapter area leader to get the right resources.”
Making this distinction between different leadership qualities helped Telstra to address a perennial HR challenge.
“Most HR practitioners have spent a lifetime trying to work out how to get leaders to find the time, energy or desire to equally focus on developing, knowing and supporting their people as they put into doing their work.
“Often you’d get them saying, ‘I’m too busy. I haven’t got time for that. I’ll get to it when I can.’ It’s often a secondary consideration. But for most organisations, our people are actually our biggest assets.”
We’re not all born leaders
Other than wanting to create more agile ways of working, Telstra also acknowledged the importance of offering employees engaging progression pathways that aligned with their passions.
When you help people to discover what they’re really good at – be that problem-solving, idea generating or relationship building – engagement and productivity can go through the roof.
Read HRM’s article on helping employees to discover their native genius.
It’s also a great way to safeguard against poor quality leadership, says Badenoch.
“Some people feel like they have to take on leadership roles to progress. But let’s be honest, not all of us are designed to be great people leaders.
“Some of us are great at what we do, but don’t love or aren’t great at leading people. So there should be other pathways you can pursue.”
Those other pathways are communicated to Telstra employees almost as soon as they join the organisation.
“You very quickly get exposed to different types of work and start to make choices about those pathways as you gain experience. For example, as you build your competency in a certain area, you might become a chapter lead [as opposed to a chapter area lead], where you’re responsible for a dozen or so people.
“One of the things we generally do is try, as early as possible, to move people around between product owner and chapter leads, so they get exposure to both sides. That’s really important because most of us don’t know exactly what we’re best at or what we love until we try it.
“Our structures are very flexible, rather than hardwiring people into a particular line of work that they can’t get out of.”
Making separate progression pathways work
As with traditional leadership roles, it’s important to track and measure leaders’ performance to keep them on track.
Setting KPIs for a leader of work is relatively straightforward – for example, you could measure the amount, quality or creativity of the products or services they’re producing. However, setting KPIs for people leaders is a little more complex.
At Telstra, one of the things people leaders are measured against is employee experience.
“We ask employees to give their leaders a net-promoter score, which is basically whether or not they’d recommend their leader as someone to work for,” says Badenoch.
“Most HR practitioners have spent a lifetime trying to work out how to get leaders to find the time, energy or desire to equally focus on developing, knowing and supporting their people as they put into doing their work.” – Alex Badenoch
Retention is another key success metric.
“Are people leaders retaining the right people? As a leader of people, you also need to have the right mix of skills and the right competency levels to be able to service the organisation. So [another KPI is] are they building the right talent pool that the company needs?”
They also incorporate questions into engagement surveys to assess leadership qualities.
“One of the things we do as part of our engagement survey is ask a few questions about people leaders, such as whether they’ve demonstrated and fulfilled Telstra’s leadership practices, including regular meetings with people, listening to employee feedback and taking action on it.”
Read HRM’s article on the four types of listening that leaders need to practice.
Badenoch says since moving to this new leadership progression stream, the sentiment from staff has been “fabulous”. However, she notes that it’s never an easy transition to make – even if you’ve got a leadership team that’s bought into the idea.
“For most people it’s a little confronting at first because it challenges their traditional thinking. But we’ve seen our engagement scores just keep going up quarter on quarter, and I do think this model has a lot to do with that.”
Badenoch’s advice to organisations looking to implement something similar is to make sure you’re serving an existing business need.
“It wasn’t just something we did because HR thought it was a good idea. It was in service of our business strategy, and the business transformation we need to make as a whole company.
“It needs to be deeply embedded in your business strategy.”
Finally, she suggests organisations pilot an agile way of working before scaling it across the whole organisation.
“We started with a front runner team. We ran an experiment and they helped us test and learn what the design would look like and what worked, as well as the pitfalls we needed to watch out for.
“You’ll learn what works for your company, because every company is different. We can talk about what we did, and people can take ideas from it, but you need to build a model that suits you.”
Want to hear more from Alex Badenoch on progression pathways?
She will be speaking at AHRI’s Convention from 15-17 of August in Sydney. Book your spot today.