In 2009, Becton, Dickinson and Co.’s leadership development pipeline needed to be more effective.
It took too long to fill critical open roles, successor readiness was inadequate and many succession candidates did not have enough exposure to BD’s various business lines in medical devices, diagnostics and biosciences, said Edward Franzone, worldwide learning and development leader at the global medical technology company.
These conclusions were the catalyst to create BD’s Leadership Accelerator strategy. The company already operates BD University, which provides leadership and professional development to all of its professional associates, but BD has now put a significant percentage of its spending into high potential development.
Franzone and business unit and functional leaders have been identifying high-potential talent at each level of the leadership pipeline to participate in programs to accelerate their move to the next level, including a program to facilitate development for early career high potentials called the BD Early Career Experience.
It Can Be Tough to Keep ’em Happy
The first two sessions of the early career initiative have been a hit, but such a hands-on program for today’s young up-and-coming stars — with access to BD’s senior executive committee — does have some risk.
“We were originally concerned with what the turnover of this group might be after exposing them to so much and perhaps raising their expectations,” Franzone said.
While turnover among participants ultimately turned out to be lower than nonparticipants in similar positions, Franzone and his team have had to watch out for high potentials who felt the accelerator program wasn’t accelerating their advancement fast enough.
BD’s challenge is not uncommon; high-potential Gen X and Gen Yers, and especially Gen Yers, expect more from their employers at that stage of their careers than baby boomers did, said Louis Carter, founder and chief executive officer of Best Practice Institute, an association of executives in leadership and management.
“Research shows that millennials require exponentially more advice and forward-thinking direction on a consistent basis,” Carter said. “To retain millennials, organizations must develop accelerated career development programs that are tied to the real work of the business. It’s also about how to connect millennial development with the organization’s ROI, performance cycles and board expectations.”
BD has done that by including business improvement projects in its early career program. In these six-month projects participants apply everything they have learned in the program to a real business challenge sponsored by BD’s CEO and management committee.
Chee Leong Lum, one of the participants, thought the early career program was “phenomenal,” particularly in how it exposed him to such a wide swath of BD’s business lines and leaders. But he thought the debriefing — particularly from the management committee reviewing his team’s business improvement project — could have gone farther.
Lum, who joined BD in 2007 as a senior engineer after receiving a doctorate in mechanical engineering, already has been promoted three times and is now global marketing manager, hypodermic for BD Medical.
His team’s business improvement project was to map the “white space” — gaps in existing markets or opportunities in additional markets — for BD. From that investigation, Lum’s team devised recommendations the company might want to explore, and in November, presented its case to BD’s management committee.
While Franzone said the committee “was not expected to provide participants with a status update or otherwise engage participants with regard to implementation,” Lum nevertheless was disappointed the debriefing did not include a discussion about a time line to implement his team’s proposal and what his role in that would be.
“It was well-received, but it was difficult to develop an understanding of how I personally could be involved in the development of these options,” Lum said. “If you really want to feel involved in a company, you want to feel like you can own your ideas and can get some benefit from a development perspective, from a job promotion perspective and also purely from the creative perspective.”
Lum was also anxious for BD leaders to commit to explore his ideas because of their competitiveness. He said two months after the presentation, another company acquired the technology for one of the ideas, stymieing BD’s implementation.
Still, Lum is excited about staying at BD. “Staying with the same company with this type of culture has intangible benefits, and I can get experience in very different business segments.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to retain early career high potentials because of the ever-changing nature of that life stage, Franzone said. Fearing the loss of one participant, a senior leader created a new role to persuade her to stay. “But she ended up leaving for personal reasons — her husband got a job in another location and they chose to move,” he said. “As a whole, we’re trying to make sure we don’t lose the top 10 percent of these early career high potentials.”
Making an Early Career Program Work
During the two-year program, participants have four weeklong sessions in various BD markets worldwide. The program also has an executive education component, as well as exposure to leaders in BD business units and geographical regions.
The highlight of the program is its business improvement projects. One of the teams analyzed single-source supplier risk in BD’s biosciences supply chain and then proposed a risk mitigation strategy to senior executives. After describing the disruption that an earthquake could cause a certain Japanese supplier, BD executives chose to adopt the strategy.
The team’s insight proved uncanny; two weeks after their presentation, that Japanese supplier was impacted by a major earthquake. “While not all business improvement projects are validated in such dramatic fashion, they all have a significant impact on BD’s business,” Franzone said.
Such action learning works best when participants interview employees at all levels, Carter said.
Millennials may think they know what the problems are, but they haven’t been out in the field as long as employees with 20 or 30 years of experience. Then when they get into the learning assignment, they may be so insulated they can’t see what’s really happening inside of the organization, he said. “Teams need consistent feedback from employees in the field, and action learning assignments must become granular and connect to the organization’s essential business strategy.”
Corporate social responsibility projects are another component to BD’s Early Career Experience. Six teams form to identify a nonprofit that would be a good partner to propel BD’s mission, “to help people live healthy lives.” Teams compete for two $10,000 grants of cash and BD products to make their projects happen. In 2012, one of the grant-winning teams proposed a project to address cervical cancer in Guatemala.
“As a result of this team’s work, BD has partnered with the Juan Bautista Gutierrez Foundation to provide education on the benefits of early detection,” Franzone said. “In addition, BD is donating cervical cancer screening products to provide the local Guatemalan community, for the first time, with an advanced method to screen for the disease.”
Participants also have the chance to have fun in the various regions they visit during the program, including attending a baseball game in the U.S., a beer-tasting competition in Belgium and the Shanghai Expo in China.
“These once-in-a-lifetime cultural opportunities that the program provides, along with the underlying fun that accompanies them, are critical to the success of a program designed to resonate with young people,” Franzone said.
After two sessions, turnover metrics are encouraging. For the first group of early career experience participants, the total turnover rate per annum was 7.4 percent from July 2009 through January 2014; for the top potentials, it was 5.9 percent. For the second group, the total turnover rate per annum was 3 percent from May 2011 through January 2014; for the top potentials, it was zero. In comparison, in BD’s general employee population, annual turnover rate among associates at a similar job group level averaged 8 percent during the past three years.
While roughly half of the early career program participants have been proactive in their subsequent career moves, some still “struggle with the idea of taking charge of their own career, particularly when they face obstacles,” Franzone said.
For example, some hiring managers have passed on the opportunity to hire an early-career high-potential associate in favor of hiring a more experienced candidate from outside the organization, he said. As a result, Franzone and his team now provide more systemic support via clear career paths for all high-potential talent, and they are considering dedicating specific developmental experiences or pass-through roles for this group.
But perhaps the greatest lesson learned is to clearly set participants’ expectations at the outset. “We tell them up front, just because you have been identified as a high potential and nominated for this program doesn’t mean that you have been anointed a high potential forever,” Franzone said. “We tell them to continue performing at a high level and continue learning in order to remain a high potential.”