How AllianceBernstein Implemented a ‘Career Conversations’ Program to Boost Engagement

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“Our managers told us they didn’t feel like they knew how to offer career guidance to their employees. So, we began to build a toolkit, a way for managers to help guide their employees to think about and evaluate the career they really want to have.”

—Allison Pearson, AVP, Learning and Development Manager

LEADx research indicates that having career conversations with your manager at least twice per year is one of the top ten drivers of employee engagement.

sustain-leadership-habits-previewBut, managers often struggle to facilitate effective career conversations. Managers report that they don’t know how to guide their team members through a career conversation, and on top of that, they fear that career conversations might drive away star performers and hurt their team.

The good news is that you can train managers and their direct reports to engage in thoughtful career conversations. The Career Compass Toolkit at AllianceBernstein (or “AB”) might just be the single best example out there. To share how they designed and delivered their Career Compass Toolkit and training programs, two leaders on the firm’s People – Talent Management, Learning and Engagement Team agreed to meet for an interview: Robert Avinger, Vice President, Head of Talent Management, Learning and Engagement and Allison Pearson, Assistant Vice President, Learning and Development Manager.

AB is a leading global investment management firm with over $665 billion in assets under management. They offer a wide variety of investment services to clients, from institutional investors to individuals and private wealth clients. Headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, AB stands at over 4,000 employees spread across 51 locations globally.

AB Identified the Need for Career Conversations Training Based on Manager Feedback

Pearson first had the idea to put together a career development program in 2021, when managers across Europe and Asia Pacific regions requested help. Pearson said, “I had a phone call with these managers to get more insight into what they really needed help with. They said, ‘We feel like we don't have much career guidance to give our teams. How do we help our people with their careers in thinking through professional development, aspirations, and goals?’” Based on that phone call, Pearson began to brainstorm various tools that included a more formalized guide for managers and a toolkit for employees.

AB Built Out The PATH Framework To Break Down The Key Components Of Effective Career Conversations

A toolkit is only useful if you can carry it with you. That’s why Pearson and Avinger built their toolkit around the easy-to-remember acronym: PATH.

Prepare: Start thinking about your career. You can’t just “do” your career. You need to prepare. What are people asking you? What kinds of things are you seeing in your role?

Assess: Assess yourself and your career. What are your values? What is important to you? What do you enjoy doing?

Talk: You have to start talking about your career. This begins with your manager. Participants work through an agenda of manager meetings with guided questions and topics.

Hone:  What are you doing to hone in on something tangible and meaningful to your career? This is the stage where you take feedback from your manager and put it to use. What are you doing to put that feedback into action?

The Toolkit: A Step-by-Step Guide, Career Planner, Networking Guide, and Encyclopedia of Resources

The toolkit is a PDF guide that moves step-by-step through each component of PATH, offering detailed strategies and tactics.

The guide includes:

  • a Career Planner to help employees establish a formal plan to achieve their career goals.
  • a Networking Guide to help show employees what kinds of questions to ask as they network and what skills and areas they may want to learn more about.
  • a set of additional resources that employees can follow to learn more about careers, career conversations, and networking.
  • a working PDF that can be continuously updated.

This highly actionable guide, combined with workshops and a mapped-out agenda of real manager meetings, sets the stage for learning that gets applied on the job in real time.

The Secret To The Program’s Success: Manager Involvement

A high degree of manager involvement drives the program. At the same time that employees learn how to think about and approach career conversations, managers learn how to best facilitate them. Managers learn how to listen, ask questions, and provide support and guidance within those conversations.

Sample “Dos and Don’ts” Guide for Managers.

Avinger emphasized how important the manager component is, saying, “When we began to look at our internal mobility program, we would often hear employees express concern about telling their manager that they’re interested in a different job. We knew we needed to begin to poke holes in this mindset that managers have of ‘keeping their people at all costs.’ Instead, we want managers to encourage internal mobility.” Avinger went on to point out that from the manager’s perspective, losing an integral team member is painful, but from the organization’s perspective, “We'd much rather a star performer go to a different department within AB than to a department at another firm.” 

Pearson highlighted that many managers get value from the PATH framework, not just as managers but for themselves personally. “Many managers realize that they hadn’t even thought about their own careers,” she said. On top of that, many of the managers who do have career conversations don’t realize how they’re supposed to approach these discussions. “A lot of managers think they’re supposed to tell people what they should do versus guiding them, being a coach, and helping them analyze,” Pearson said.

AB Commits to Career Development from Multiple Angles

Another way AB strategically emphasizes “career” is through its Career Catalyst and Career Connections programs. Four years ago, as AB reviewed their employee engagement survey results, they noticed that certain populations scored lower in engagement than others—specifically, female VPs and underrepresented VPs. In response, AB’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Team partnered with the People Team to build out the Career Catalyst program. This six-month coaching program pairs senior vice presidents with female and ethnically diverse vice presidents. The SVPs provide career support via one-on-one meetings that cover topics like “presentation skills” and “networking.”

As an integral part of the program, the SVPs receive training on how to coach more effectively. Avinger described the training saying, “We provide training around topics ranging from ‘what does it mean to be a coach,’ to ‘how can you be a strong coach when it comes to career development?’”

“And then we also provide training to the participants on what it means to be coachable and how to leverage this relationship from a career development standpoint.” With the program’s success from a retention and promotion standpoint, they expanded it to their APAC region and now, in 2023, to their EMEA region.

“Since its launch, our Career Catalyst program constantly strives to meet our female vice presidents and vice presidents from ethnically diverse groups exactly where they are in their careers,” said Brynn Plummer, Vice President & Director, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at AllianceBernstein. “While it serves many purposes, our ultimate goal is for our participants to envision long-term, successful careers at AllianceBernstein.”

The Career Catalyst program has been so successful at the VP level that they “rinsed and repeated it” at the AVP level. At the AVP level, they found that AVPs scored lower in engagement across the board. So, they launched the Career Connections program and made it available to all AVPs.

The Takeaway For Leadership Development Professionals: Involve Managers Deeply

“What is especially unique about the structure of the program is how it leverages senior leaders within the firm to help me build out my career path. I love learning from external sources, but when you have someone internally who is cheering you on, investing in your career journey, and prioritizing time to help you get from one place to the next, that speaks volumes.”
—Carly Symington, Vice President, Public Relations

Manager involvement is sewn into the very fabric of AB’s Career programs. Each program goes much deeper than simply filling managers in on what their direct reports are learning. The entire curriculum is built around managers coaching and developing the participants. The result of Pearson and Avinger’s thoughtful design is a recipe for success: A mapped-out agenda of impactful conversations bolstered by a toolkit and workshops.

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CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at https://leadx.org/preview.