Karl Sprules has seen firsthand how employee expectations have reshaped the already tight market for tech talent. As global head of technology and operations at AllianceBernstein, Sprules, along with his leadership colleagues, are going the extra mile to ensure the financial services company can compete in today’s seller’s market for vital tech skills.
“I think what’s changed more recently has been the expectations of employees — that’s evolved dramatically. Their expectations of the workplace, the work, flexibility, what the culture offers, compensation, opportunity, their access to being part of innovation, belonging in the workplace — all those things have become more important for us when we think about talent,” he says.
AllianceBernstein stands out in the financial services industry as a company that offers employees more than just competitive pay and benefits. Global BPO research firm The Everest Group recently ranked AllianceBernstein first among large financial services companies for tech employment based on its high scores for employee satisfaction, work environment, compensation, career opportunities, and diversity.
And it is this last facet, diversity, that has been a critical component for establishing AllianceBernstein as a premier recruiter and retainer of tech talent today.
“The more perspectives we can have in the room, having different ideas, people that have different lived experiences, people that have different backgrounds — that really matters,” says Janessa Cox-Irvin, global head of diversity and inclusion at AllianceBernstein.
Diversifying the talent pipeline
The list of programs that AllianceBernstein has in place to diversify its talent pipeline is extensive. The Nashville, Tenn.-based company works with job training nonprofit Year Up to recruit tech talent from underserved populations. It sponsors high school robotics teams, offers career transition programs for former pro athletes and military members, and partners with the Nashville Software School to offer vocational training.
Last year, AllianceBernstein added apprenticeships to that list, piloting a program with the Greater Nashville Technology Council (NTC) to offer tuition-free web development bootcamps. Participants receive a stipend and healthcare benefits, and after completing the bootcamp, they are placed in a full-time paid apprenticeship with a mentor at AllianceBernstein for one year before transitioning into a permanent role.
The financial firm also recently launched its HBCU Scholars Program, partnering with four historically black colleges and universities to provide up to 20 students with scholarships after completing a 9-week summer internship. The organization finds it useful to connect with talent early, often bringing interns back for apprenticeship roles that ultimately lead to a full-time position within the organization.
“We want to get people from as many different talent pools as we possibly can. We think that getting folks together with diverse ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives gets you to a better outcome,” says Sprules.
Cox-Irvin and Sprules both say that the apprenticeship programs and various partnerships with organizations, such as Year Up and the NTC, have brought in a diverse talent pool, with several participants of these programs continuing in the organization to leadership and senior leadership positions.
AllianceBernstein also focuses on senior leadership accountability around DEI, making DEI goals a part of its performance review process. The organization has instituted strategic business unit scorecards with culture and diversity as “very explicit assessment categories,” says Irvin-Cox.
“We’re broadening the definition of performance. It’s no longer just financial performance. It’s also your performance as a leader, your performance as a cultivator of talent, your performance as an attractor of talent,” she says.
The goal is to ensure that inclusion is on everyone’s mind, especially at the leadership level, says Sprules. DEI is more than just an initiative, it’s a “journey,” says Cox-Irvin. Therefore, DEI needs to be something that becomes part of the daily conversation, rather than something put to the backburner and revisited once or twice a year.
“What we tried to do is keep inclusion front and center — inclusion is sort of like a muscle that has to be exercised frequently and consistently in order to grow stronger. And over the years, we’ve really tried to ensure that our people, our managers, our middle managers are really flexing that muscle as often as possible,” says Sprules.
Investing in advancement
This push to foster inclusion and belonging has become a key tool for talent retention today. A 2022 study from Qualtrics found that 75% of employees who plan to leave their company within the next 6 months do not feel a sense of belonging at their organization, whereas 83% of those who plan to stay at their company for five years or more said they feel a strong sense of belonging, with 76% saying they feel everyone at their company has an equal chance of success, no matter who they are.
“Half of the issue is bringing people in, the other half — almost the more difficult half — is getting people to stay and having them see a place for themselves within your organization,” says Cox-Irvin.
To achieve this, AllianceBernstein offers several programs, including Career Connections, which partners associate vice presidents with internal advisors or coaches to help them think about career development. There’s also a program that specifically pairs female vice presidents and vice presidents of color with senior vice presidents in the organization. This ensures that everyone has access to mentorship and sponsorship — two things that are vital as you climb the corporate ladder.
Fostering career advancement is a strong focus at Alliance Bernstein. So much so that the firm tries to avoid making lateral hires from outside the company, Sprules says.
“How do we focus on mobility and push people through the organization? That’s a big focus that we want to make sure that we know the entry roles into our organization. And know the pathways that work well for the folks that do well in in those entry roles,” says Sprules.
Employees also have access to a large pool of employee resource groups (ERGs) to help build a sense of community in the workplace and to ensure employees feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work.
“Our ERGs have been such an incredible part of our organizations journey as it relates to DEI, specifically in the last two years of really maintaining employee engagement,” says Cox-Irvin. “Whether it’s our LGBT ERG talking about different perspectives on the transgender experience, or our black ERG reflecting on a couple years of disruption, or our Asian ERG hosting a #stopasianhate open dialogue around the rise in violence against the Asian American community, there’s been a ton of work that they have done to keep DEI front and center from an employee perspective.”
And these efforts are being rewarded with employee loyalty, as feedback from employees points to an appreciation of how the company is “intentional about prioritizing people, particularly over the last few years,” Cox-Irvin says.
Employees point to the company’s willingness to change, the resources it provides, its ERGs, its commitment to inclusion, clear efforts to diversify leadership, and robust trainings as some of the main reasons why they want to stay at AllianceBernstein.
But senior leadership at AllianceBernstein isn’t resting on these laurels, given the tight market for talent and the ongoing evolution of employee expectations in the workplace.
“We’re happy to hear [our employees are happy here],” Cox-Irvin says, “but we know that there’s always more work to be done.”