Is your cashier on the fast track to a corner office? Are you a groomer or sales associate with executive-level ambition? Homegrown talent can sometimes be exactly what an organization needs. Here’s how this year’s Best Companies for Hourly Workers find and cultivate their stars.
As Kellie Ann Cahill likes to tell it, she was waiting tables at an upscale Italian restaurant when she got her “big break.” Not in Hollywood, but at Hilton Worldwide.
She’d served plenty of business dinners, but one group from the hotel chain that had come to celebrate a team success made a great impression. People from many departments, at different ages and career levels, gathered around a table with camaraderie and a sense of common purpose.
“They were so dynamic and were clearly enjoying each other’s company,” Kellie recalls. Intrigued, she struck up a conversation; at the end of the meal, the hotel’s head of sales and marketing handed her a business card.
Weeks later, Kellie started as a front desk clerk earning $7.50 an hour in Somerset, NJ. Seeing her enthusiasm and potential, the company didn’t leave her there long. A handful of promotions later, the 35-year-old mom of Taylor, 5, and C.J., 19 months, is now the director of sales and marketing for Hilton New York, Manhattan’s largest hotel and one of the chain’s flagship properties. Kellie envisions going to Shanghai, Dubai or even the corporate office in McLean, VA, over the next several years.
“Hourly workers are often overlooked as a vital source of talent and in some cases are assumed to be uninterested in development,” says Jennifer Kohler, director of advisory services for Catalyst, a research nonprofit that advocates for women in business. “This is a fallacy that successful companies don’t fall for.”
This year, Working Mother honors 12 Best Companies for Hourly Workers for their family-friendly track records in recruiting, retaining and advancing hourly employees, among other criteria. These companies understand that leadership can come from anywhere—and that it’s particularly powerful when it's homegrown. Together, these companies promoted more than 10,000 hourly workers into management in 2010.
“Talent development is a core part of Target’s culture that runs very deep,” says Kim Strong, vice president of diversity and inclusion of Target Stores, one of this year’s winning companies. “There is tremendous pride in being seen as a person, team or store that’s recognized for growing talent.”
Jennifer Swanberg, PhD, executive director of the Institute for Workplace Innovation at the University of Kentucky, says savvy companies nurture the careers of their hourly workers. “When hourly workers have access to opportunities for growth and development, they’re more likely to be engaged, stay with the company and go the extra mile” for employers, she notes. Engaged employees’ productivity is 20 percentage points higher than that of disengaged workers, according to research done by the Corporate Leadership Council.
What’s more, experts say, managers who started in hourly jobs are more likely to be a diverse group, understand frontline business challenges and have credibility managing change across the company’s stakeholders.
“It’s a tremendous advantage for managers to fully understand the challenges and opportunities of the frontline talent pool,” says Kohler. “Someone who has lived it is more likely to support policies that are more than mere lip service.”
Given that many jobs created in the United States in the coming years will be hourly service jobs, companies that make these jobs meaningful stand to gain a huge competitive advantage, says Dr. Swanberg. Our Best Companies for Hourly Workers have a head start. here’s what they do.
Leadership isn’t defined by a salary, office or dedicated parking spot. “As soon as team members start in our stores, we look at them as leaders,” says Target’s Kim Strong. “We want to know where their interests lie. we talk a lot about what steps we can take to develop them.” (In fact, 100 percent of this year’s winning companies offer leadership training to hourly workers.)
Target veteran Cindy Hudson, 42, will never forget her first taste of leadership. She was a 20-year-old team member working in sporting goods when her manager asked her to lead the store’s morning “huddle.” Equal parts pep rally, goal-setting exercise and debriefing session, the daily meeting brings all store staff together for about 15 minutes. To Cindy, it was unbelievably gratifying to speak about the day’s goals to such a large group of co-workers. And that moment was just one of the ways that her job at Target, which she took initially to help pay for nursing school, defied her expectations. Working at Target is fun and challenging, she says, and entry-level workers are expected to think.
“The energy was contagious,” recalls Cindy, who in her 22-year career with Target has risen to vice president of asset protection. (She’s the first woman in the Minneapolis-based retailer’s history to lead the function.) She’s also mom to Lauren, 10, and Emily, 7. Cindy gives the company credit for her strong start: “People were quick to connect for you what you could do to impact the business.”
For Cindy, flipping the switch from a “paycheck” to a “career” mindset was powerful. convinced her prospects were brighter at Target, she swapped nursing for a business degree. Through mentors who cross-trained her, she soon became a merchandise manager. Then, at age 23, Cindy was tapped to manage a store (200-plus team members and millions in revenue) in Sarasota, FL.
In a 2010 survey, the Working Mother Research Institute found that women like Cindy who see their job as part of a career (rather than just a chance to earn a paycheck) were 11 percentage points more engaged. They reported higher satisfaction levels at work and at home. While not every rise will be as meteoric as Cindy’s, smart companies can use the same basic steps to create career meaning: Understand an employee’s interests and talents, allow her to try different roles, and have mentors discuss a broad range of “next steps”—ladders up and lattices across areas.
Stretched, but Also Supported
Stretch assignments, mentors and experiences are important, but here’s the other mainstay for helping women advance: flexibility.
Rachel Rayvid Paul, 52, is the first to say that winning company Cricket Communications’ willingness to redefine its traditional career path was crucial to her success. Six months after joining the telecommunications company, a division of San Diego, CA–based Leap Wireless International, the hourly sales associate was promoted to store manager. “I was the one with my hand in the air asking the tough questions,” the mom of two says with a laugh. “It wasn’t about being negative. It was about ‘Here’s what’s broken and how we can fix it.’ ”
Rachel thrived running the Pittsburgh store, and her managers wanted to move her into a larger company role. The promotion meant relocation, but the timing wasn’t right with daughter Erika, now 25, in high school and son Joe, now 22, not far behind.
“I told my managers I didn’t want to change positions or locations until school was done, so the overarching conversation became ‘How can we continue to develop you?’ ” she says. Rachel chaired a national steering committee on improving internal communications and then joined the firm’s store launch team, helping to recruit and train employees. Though these stretch assignments meant extra time away from home, Rachel says her managers let her set her schedule so she could participate in horseback-riding events with Erica and attend Joe’s hockey and football games. “I really didn’t miss anything important,” she says. “We try to do the same for our employees today.”
Rachel also groomed her hourly team for their own promotions by teaching them inventory management, keyholder duties and how to hire talent. “I couldn’t have done all these special projects without empowering my store team,” she says. “We never let the ball drop.”
Shortly after her son graduated from high school, Rachel moved to Cricket’s regional headquarters in Philadelphia and was promoted to district director II. She now manages more than half the stores in that market. Rachel’s assistant manager, an hourly employee, has stepped into Rachel’s role as store manager.
Encouraged to Be Entrepreneurial
So, only salaried employees get to be entrepreneurial and have vision and take creative risks? That’s a myth this year’s winners like to bust.
More than 20 years ago, Jan Wilkins’s eyes were crossing with boredom at an office job. She liked pets and people, so she figured, why not try a job at PetSmart?
The fit was ideal at this winning company. When in her first month as a groomer in the Tucson, AZ, store, Jan posted the best sales numbers at the company, PetSmart execs didn’t just give her a pat on the back; they encouraged her to speak up. “It was exciting to me that they wanted to know what my ideas were,” says the 56-year-old Scottsdale, AZ–based mom of Michael, 33. “It made me want to become more creative.”
For instance, though she has no mechanical expertise, Jan came up with an idea for an improved aquatic filtration system that reduced pet loss and was cost-efficient. It’s now used in every PetSmart store. Jan also developed a training system for new groomers, which allowed the company to rapidly open new West Coast stores (84 in two years). Not every idea worked, but what Jan—who has risen from clipping dogs’ toenails to overseeing 215 stores as regional vice president—appreciates is the “it’s okay to try” culture and the support for strategic experimentation.
Cathie Spain, director of associate relations, says this is precisely the attitude PetSmart wants to foster. “Associates are taking care of our customers every day. They are so qualified to have great ideas. We want their feedback.” To that end, on its intranet, the Phoenix, AZ–based retailer offers a “Fetch” button, which asks for employee suggestions. In less than a year, the site has received 2,700 ideas and implemented 50 (another 250 are under consideration).
Time Well Spent
While they’ve all gone on to prestigious roles, these working moms say their first hourly jobs were vital in shaping their careers, giving them confidence, credibility and insider knowledge. Hilton’s Kellie Ann Cahill describes her first front desk job as an “ideal” introduction to hotel operations. “It’s the nerve center. From there, you see how all the departments interact,” she says. “I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”
So You Want to Move Up from Hourly?
Don’t wait to be noticed. Tell your manager that you’re interested in advancement and ask (often) for things that’ll help you succeed: stretch assignments, feedback on where your gaps are, a mentor.
Study the business. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be to step up.
Identify opportunities and suggest action. Customers are an evolving audience—managers are hungry for insight about how they’re reacting and what they need next.
Go for experience over training. Many of our Best Companies use the 70-20-10 rule: Focus 70 percent of your time on getting on-the-job experience, 20 percent on developing internal networks and 10 percent on formal training.
Download the full 2012 Best Companies for Hourly Workers Executive Summary here.