For Dan Cornell, vice president and CIO of Altria Group, cultivating IT careers is key to retaining IT talent.
Through a combination of talent planning, employee investment, mentorship, and clear growth opportunities, Altria is committed to helping employees understand their own potential and how they fit into the organization, Cornell says.
Employees at Altria are given the opportunity to grow their skills through training, gain experience working in other departments, and utilize the company’s structured career planning process — all of which helped the Richmond, Va.-based tobacco corporation earn first place for career development on IDG’s Best Places to Work survey for 2021.
Entry-level IT staff often do not have an exact plan for their future, as it can be difficult to know what you want to your career to be right out of college, Cornell says, making it important for IT first-timers to not feel pigeonholed into a specific track within the organization. Employees are given the chance to move throughout Altria to try out various roles and work on a variety of projects.
For example, an entry-level code developer is thrown into highly technical work right away, says Cornell. But for their first five or six years with the company, they’ll be moved to different projects to gain experience and to help them figure out what they enjoy working on. This approach also helps them develop new skills and learn new technologies that will benefit them down the line.
“In many cases, we’re trying to put them into a role that ultimately is going to make them sweat — it’s going to really challenge them,” Cornell says.
Sometimes, employees find they like a different role or department and want to stay there, he adds, while others will want to move on to something else. But over the course of five or six years, it becomes easier to identify what resonates with employees and what gets them excited — then they can figure out how to “bring those two things together,” Cornell says.
Cornell’s team also offers rotational and alternative assignments outside of the IT department, so employees can gain insight and experience from other parts of the organization. “We try to make sure that we are moving people around on a pretty regular basis, maybe every couple of years and giving them a bunch of new experiences,” he says.
Career planning from the get-go
Altria also offers employees talent planning annually. Employees go through a review process that looks at where they are at in their career, what they aspire to in the organization, and what they want their career to look like over time. This helps staff stay focused on their career goals and assess whether they’re on track. It also helps their managers figure out what skills can be developed, what training can be offered, or what experiences can be gained from exposure to other departments or projects. Cornell describes it as a “thoughtful and purposeful” process that brings a sense of formality to career progression.
For example, someone with an interest in cybersecurity might also “enjoy interaction with a business area,” Cornell says, pointing them towards a business analyst career path that might resonate more strongly with them. During talent planning, that employee will get help figuring out how to move in the right direction and how to gain the skills necessary to get there.
This type of career planning “goes all the way up to the highest levels of the organization,” says Cornell. “Everybody goes through it — the career planning process and the development plan.”
Altria also outlines career paths, starting from the entry level to show what opportunity employees have for growth in the organization, Cornell says. This basic roadmap helps give employees a “broad understanding of how you purposely set yourself up for further progression in different roles,” he says.
Altria also recognizes that leadership isn’t a path everyone wants to take. Because of this, the company offers those who aren’t interested in a leadership track a clear path and potential for career growth as well, Cornell says. Employees can check in as they grow in the organization to decide whether they want to stay on a technical track or if they feel called to leadership.
Mentorship and training
Altria’s formal mentoring program pairs employees with a mentor on their first day at the company. Mentors help employees get settled into the company and provide a point person for new employees to ask questions and get comfortable in their new role.
Over time, Altria focuses on creating mentorship relationships where people are aligned with mentors or mentees who may have a different viewpoint and set of experiences. Mentors and mentees work on assignments together and typically meet on a monthly basis to check in.
Altria also dedicates about $2,500 to $3,000 per employee for training, with a strong focus on experiential training. These investments not only help employees develop their careers but also helps the organization stay on top of new and emerging skills. With technology changing so rapidly, it’s important for Altria to invest in continuous learning to ensure the organization stays on top of the latest technologies, Cornell says.
Altria also offers internal training platforms so employees can take advantage of courses and programs to grow their skills and expertise. Employees can even make public playlists of training courses they’ve taken to help others in the organization. For instance, a network engineer can generate a playlist of training classes that helped them gain more skills for their role, and others in the organization who are in similar roles or who want to be in that role can follow along to get the same trainings.
“I’m not a real fan of just going to a class and coming back and not using it. I think the best [training] is where you go to a training class and you come back and you leverage it with an assignment that helps you to use the skill sets you’ve built,” Cornell says.