New ways to get ahead
At many FORTUNE 500 employers, it's now easier to move up by moving sideways first.
If you work at a FORTUNE 500 company, you've probably found it hard (if not impossible) to get much meaningful experience outside your narrow functional area.
At big corporations, marketing people have tended to get stuck in marketing, finance people have rarely been offered opportunities to step outside finance, and so on. Everybody aiming to rise through the ranks has had to wait for a job opening directly overhead.
That's still true in lots of places, but it's changing fast. One of the hottest buzzwords in human resources now is "unsiloing," an ungainly bit of jargon that means this: Take upwardly mobile employees out of their straight-up-and-down functional "silos" and move them around to where their talents are needed, with an eye toward helping them cultivate new skills.
"The trend will open up some interesting possibilities for people who want to get ahead, especially if they're between the ages of 35 and 55," says Jim Kochanski, a senior vice president at Sibson Consulting.
The idea is that if you're a an engineering project manager, you might be sent off to work with a marketing team for a while; or, if your career so far has been in sales, you might be tapped to learn the ropes in manufacturing. The assignments could be short-term or long-term depending on your employer.
But why the sudden push to help managers gain a broad range of experience?
"CEOs will rarely admit it in public, but privately they say they're worried about having enough qualified people to fill leadership roles as baby boomers retire," says Kochanski. "So more big companies now are actively analyzing where the gaps are likely to be, and which skills they need to be giving people the chance to develop right now."
Meet the poster boy
A Sibson study last year revealed that more than 50% of FORTUNE 500 companies are trying to figure out how to shuffle potential leaders around to give them the broadest possible range of experience. And the trend appears to be spreading fast: 90% of large companies (defined as those with 500 or more employees) now say this kind of talent development is a top priority, according to a new study by the Society for Human Resource Management.
Of course, some huge employers, like General Electric (Research) and UPS (Research), have been unsiloing up-and-comers for a long time -- as has this year's No. 1 on the FORTUNE 500 list, Exxon Mobil (Research).
Indeed, Rex Tillerson, who became CEO of the oil giant on January 1, might be called the poster boy for unsiloing. His 31-year career at the company took him from an engineering job in Texas to natural-gas development in Alaska and the Beaufort Sea, then to running oil and gas production in the southwestern U.S., next to a stint in New Jersey as head of international gas sales, then to Yemen as president of that country's Exxon unit, and back to development again as an executive vice president.
"The first obligation of management" is to make sure future leaders get the skills and experience they need to move up," Tillerson told Charlie Rose last year.
What to ask your boss
How can you tell if your employer may be open to unsiloing? One tip-off is a sudden spate of lateral moves -- new faces showing up in your department from elsewhere in the organization, perhaps.
You can also ask HR if opportunities to broaden your skills may be available outside of your immediate silo. Or just ask your boss if she knows of anywhere in the company you might go to pick up new expertise -- ideally of a kind that would benefit your current team as well. A finance person who's spent some time on the front lines in customer service, for instance, can bring back a whole new perspective.
"Talent is more visible now across various functional silos, so your boss may know where the opportunities for advancement are -- not just in his or her area but in others areas as well," says Kochanski.
One caveat: Be ready for some honest feedback. Unsiloing is usually available only to employees the company regards as high-potential -- that is, people who've been earmarked as possible future leaders.
"One of the big issues for companies now is, do you tell someone they're considered a high-potential?" Kochanski notes. "If you do, the person may get their hopes up and be disappointed later. But if you tell them they're not, they may quit."
What this means for you: "Don't go in with any expectations. You have to make it possible for your boss to be honest with you about where you really stand," he says. "And of course, your boss has to have the guts to tell you."2006 FORTUNE 500
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