The ACT Approach to Diversifying Talent

Many of us in human resources are measuring our diverse hiring results and are not reaching our goals at all levels. We are also seeing senior staff exiting, as retirements become an increased reason for openings, leaving a wide gap in knowledge.

To battle these issues, employers are exploring options such as: retaining retirees, immigration hiring, retention raises, talent increases from buyouts, the use of offshore workers, hiring displaced workers from other industries, and targeting competitors.

Brown Shoe has come up with another solution.

Our program identifies up-and coming talent by grooming them into a leadership path. Brown Shoe has been developing a program we call ACT (Accelerated Career Track), designed to attract top college graduates looking for an opportunity to prove themselves worthy to move up the corporate ladder. ACT pays for a remote MBA from the University of Florida and seeks to develop these individuals professionally, with an ultimate goal of movement toward management/director level positions. This innovative hiring method is designed for highly motivated and hard-working graduates who are willing to relocate multiple times, learning several areas of the Brown Shoe wholesale and retail business.

In this new program, as with our other programs for developing talent, our philosophy is one of investment. This strategy is not without risk, since not everyone will be able to fulfill our challenging requirements along the way.

This strategy is consistent with our overall objective to build a staff of high-potential employees who are planning for, and working toward, a future in the organization. We are attempting to grow our business by delivering an internal pipeline that includes a diverse mix of talent. We believe that by providing a variety of experiences in many areas of the company, these hires will have the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to become strong leaders. The ACT program is a tool we have created to fulfill business needs, but it may also reshape how we attract and use our talent pipeline in the future.

How ACT is Different

Many employers who provide traditional internships give students a corporate overview or temporary employment that supplies the employer coverage in an entry-level position in one department. While these programs give students an understanding of the corporate structure, most employers don’t look to these talented students beyond a summer. Although our program starts after graduation, employers can implement a program like this as the next step for a previous intern. The view a student gains into an organization can be taken to the next level by setting expectations and diversifying their experiences.

ACT participants receive real-world experience in a variety of skills so it is not about becoming an expert in any one area. These employees take the knowledge gained in one department and apply it in their next role. In this structure, they are allowed to make mistakes, grow from them, and apply those learnings in their next position. Because they learn the basics of how a product is sold on the front end, it will allow them to make knowledgeable decisions as they grow. Ultimately, they will comprehend all the areas they have worked in and understand the part they play in affecting the larger complexities of the business.

These individuals will work in areas they may not have considered previously as a career option for themselves. Some of the positions may be extremely difficult, and honestly, they may not even enjoy each one. When selecting the rotatation of roles for each participant, the positions are not determined solely by what the individual is best suited for long-term. As they face challenges in each role, they learn about themselves, and we learn where they can contribute most in the future.

How It Works

After first round interviews are conducted on campus at six schools, we select candidates to move forward. In the second round of interviews, Brown Shoe hosts an event where eligible students are brought into our office. The interviewing students meet each other, and they interact with our executives. They also complete individual interviews with teams of senior managers. Each team focuses their behavioral questions on one area. Unlike traditional interviews, where every aspect of the candidate’s fit is evaluated by each interviewer, the team gives feedback on just one success factor. From these interviews, finalists are chosen to complete a Psychological Associates assessment. This evaluates their current problem-solving skills, leadership style, and work-related characteristics, with subsequent evaluations to be performed to track their development. After a Psychological Associates professional gives us feedback on each assessed candidate, Brown Shoe uses all the gathered information to make final selection decisions.

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Our program started three years ago, and we currently have 24 participants. To manage the program, we have a human resources ACT representative that works closely with everyone involved. They have regular conference calls with each participant to review how the current position is going, what they are learning, and to decide what should be considered as their next role. Those involved also complete and turn in monthly journals to assist in monitoring their progress. The supervisors provide performance reviews to further assist in determining areas of strength and opportunity.

To assist in determining what role they should be in next, we have them shadow employees in departments they may be interested in, and we discuss the benefits of working in the area. When a position is decided on, they are provided training as they transition out of their previous role.

ACT participants interact with each other within the initial interview process as well as attending training at our St. Louis corporate office twice a year. This training includes professional development, communication styles, coaching, supervisor skills, and others. The HR representative manages four conference calls a year with all ACT participants to touch base and discuss topics of interest. They also communicate with each other on Sharepoint. This allows them the opportunity to be involved with different discussions, turning to each other for feedback and support. We have found that many of them communicate offline with each other as well.

We provide each person an executive mentor whom they meet during onboarding. They complete a workshop allowing them to connect and they both sign a contract agreeing on how often they will talk, as well as setting expectations and determining how they can best work together. They are also allowed two trips a year to visit each other. Selection of the mentor/mentee is based on personality and areas for development, as this is also seen as a development opportunity for the mentor.

Brown Shoe covers the cost of a remote MBA from the University of Florida. Since we have a strong partnership with the University of Florida, we know exactly what is being taught to ensure our program compliments their education. Much of the training is online and it includes four trips to the school each year. Our initial interview and selection process involves students from six schools and we work closely with the Jackie Robinson Foundation. After working closely with each school to assist us in the promotion of ACT and by attending job fairs, we are now considered a sought after and competitive program.

The biggest challenges in getting a program like this running is in having all the moving pieces work together while getting buy-in from the rest of the company. The development of materials that support the program and allowing others to understand the process is critical to success. Being creative with your positions as they function within the organization is also a big challenge. As with any program, it has to come from the top with the expectation of acceptance. Over time, those involved will see the benefits and become the biggest advocates for the success of the program and for the people they have had a hand in developing.

By proactively using a combination of strategies, we are hiring those who represent the customers we serve to ensure future success. As the demographics of business change, we have to act now to attract and develop a diverse, skilled, and motivated workforce. With recruiting that focuses on succession planning and training, we believe this is a unique tactic for the battle ahead.

Tami Retzlaff is the Global Training Strategist for the Talent Acquisition department at Brown Shoe Company. She founded the Madison Recruiters Network and served as president for four years. Throughout her 10-year recruitment career, she has led corporate recruiting functions, developed innovative ideas to improve practices, and designed as well as managed training programs to deliver upon business strategies.

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