Traditional job titles are soon to be a thing of the past at Noblis, a nonprofit research organization based in Falls Church, Va. The company - named to the Great Place to Work Institute's 2011 Best Medium Workplaces list - employs about 800 scientists, engineers, researchers and technology experts who work with public and private sector clients in the areas of health care, national security, transportation, energy, and environmental sustainability and telecommunications.

As a government contractor, Noblis has experienced shifting business demands. With much of the company's work historically coming from sole-source directed awards, Noblis in recent years has moved to a much more competitive bidding environment. In addition, the company learned through the Great Place to Work Institute surveys that its employees wanted more career-development opportunities and clearer expectations on what it took to move up in the company. Those two factors were the prime drivers in Noblis' decision to divorce itself from the traditional concept of job titles and move to a career-band model.

 

CPR breathes new life into Noblis

Created entirely inhouse, this new career progression roadmap is "a model that was developed by Noblis, for Noblis and with Noblis [employees]," explains Laura Lund, lead organization and professional development specialist with Noblis. "Our leaders had a lot of input into this model."

Called the Career Progression Roadmap, the new model consists of eight career "bands."

"We've moved away from what our employees associated with levels and titles," says Lund. "We had internal titles like 'staff' or 'senior staff,' [or] 'principal.' We are moving away from that. Now, [employees'] expectations, competencies and responsibilities will be associated with a career band."

Each of the eight bands contains a set of expectations, which is the "what" of the work. The work falls into four different areas, or threads: technical/functional, client engagement and business development, project and business management, and grow self/develop others. And under each thread, a variety of competencies - the "how" of the work - are outlined. "The competencies really give the employees an understanding of how they can carry out their work," Lund explains.

Expectations and competencies under each thread will change in scope and scale as an employee moves up through the career bands.

"Traditionally, career development can go one of two ways," she says. "It can either map out what you are supposed to do, including scope and complexity, and that's generally used for identifying compensation levels. Or, it can have competencies, which are used for career development purposes. Our model actually has both pieces embedded in it."

Another component of the model is "roles," which are defined as a temporary set of responsibilities, focused on a particular area of work. Examples of roles include: individual contributor, task manager, project manager, people manager and proposal manager. Employees can move in and out of roles, which aren't tied to the eight career bands, and may also serve in more than one role at a time.

"We were trying to get away from the hierarchy of people manager being at a specific level or having business project management being at a specific level. We really want people to be able to lead and grow from anywhere within the organization," says Amy Rivera, organization and professional development manager with Noblis. "While there is a hierarchy and a one-through-eight leveling, the idea here is that we want people to be able to garner the resources they need to meet the needs of their clients wherever they are in the organization."

 

Communication challenges

Implementing the new model has required a massive communication effort. The company's CEO has met with employees from every level of the organization at breakfast and lunch sessions to give people an opportunity to see the roadmap and to explain why the company is doing this. "Our senior leaders are really being cheerleaders for this and are doing some of the advocating and education," Lund says.

In addition, she and her team have created a special career roadmap portal, conducted familiarization sessions with more senior level employees and held manager training. "We knew we needed to grow this muscle of the ability of the manager to communicate with the employee," Rivera adds. "We brought in a full-day training session [called] Conversations that Matter, which gives them some tools and ways to think about and prepare for conversations with their employees that are going be high stakes for the employees, to be prepared to be able to do that in a way that is sensitive, as well as candid and productive."

Information about the career progression roadmap has also appeared regularly in the company's weekly newsletter, and there are posters throughout the organization. In addition, Noblis produced a movie-trailer-style video early on that featured the company's CEO talking about the career progression roadmap. The trailer received 500 hits the first week it was out.

Noblis leaders also have gone to great lengths to develop models of what a career would have looked like had someone moved up through the organization under the new roadmap.

"What we are finding with the employees is the further we go into the organization, the less familiarity there is with the actual information on the model," says Rivera. "There is a lot of rumor traffic, and we are finding that we need to use the sessions to do some rumor busting, as well as to help [employees] understand where they can get information about the career progression roadmap."

The model has yet to be fully implemented, and "we do have a lot of people who are saying, 'Gosh, this isn't how we've done business before, and I'm really not certain what this means for me,'" Lund says. "There's an uncertainty. But I think, by and large, the majority of folks are feeling good about this."

Through the whole process, "we are really emphasizing two things: broad-based communication in change management, [and] person-to-person commitment building for folks who are having difficulty," says Rivera.

Rivera cites the example of an employee who works primarily offsite with clients and who, under the "grow self/develop others" thread, is expected to mentor a less experienced employee. "This person is offsite 99% of the time, and they don't have a less experienced person on the job with them, and this employee says to me, 'I could never possibly meet this expectation,'" she explains. "So, we would talk about the fact that they are probably doing some mentoring of the government staff they are speaking with and developing those folks, and that would be the way they could demonstrate that expectation. So, the expectation remains the same, but how it looks might be different, depending on the specific job you might be working."

It's been about two years since Noblis started down the path of recreating its career development and progression model. To other employers who might be considering a similar project, Rivera says this: "If you are taking on an effort that is going to be a game changer for the organization, like this is for Noblis, not only do you have to involve people early on but you have to set the expectation that the road isn't four to six months, that it's a longer journey to help everybody come on board. It's a strategic decision to make that effort to bring people along."

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