html { scroll-behavior: smooth; scroll-behavior: initial; /* Override smooth scrolling */ }

Human Resources



Harvard Business Publishing Career Path Design Journey

Harvard Business Publishing Career Path Design Journey

In the 2023 Work in America workforce survey, 91% of respondents say it is somewhat or very important to have a job where they consistently have opportunities to learn. But only 47% say their employer offers educational opportunities (

Numerous companies experience employee departures due to a lack of visible career progression options. To tackle this issue, implementing a strong career development framework becomes crucial. This framework maps out career levels and progressions within various job categories while explicitly detailing the skills and behaviors needed at each stage.

It offers employees a clear view of the areas they must enhance to advance. Utilizing tools such as competency evaluations and personalized development plans can enrich this philosophy, if it’s going to be done right.

Today’s fantastic guest is Angela Cheng-Cimini, SVP, Talent & CHRO at Harvard Business Publishing.

Angela, what were the predominant challenges you observed within the business that prompted the initiative to establish a career development framework?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (01:35): It's a great question, Felicia. I think one of the things that HR is often accused of is working too much off of intuition, and not off of data. So when I first joined HBP, one of the very first things I did was starting to sit in on exit interviews, I wanted to understand why employees were choosing to leave this great organization at the same time I was choosing to join.

And one of the most common answers I heard was lack of professional development opportunities- that people couldn't envision themselves in a role beyond the one they currently inhabit. And I said to myself, well, that's a problem I can solve. And it's also a business challenge, right? Because we can't afford to lose critical talent. And at the time, we were sort of peeking at the great resignation, and so became even more imperative that we hold on to the people that we knew were going to be part of our success.

And so pretty quickly, I got down to the work of building out a career pathing framework. And I got full hearted unanimous support from the senior executive team, because they knew that was something that if I could pull off would make a real impact on the future of the business.

And to be fair, a career development framework built from scratch is not an easy task. So how did you secure leadership support for this big task?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (02:56): Yeah, I find that often the challenge when I talk to other HR colleagues about what keeps them from embarking on this work, because it's a monumental effort. And so I think, because I was able to present so clearly the problem and the solution that the executive team immediately got behind it, and were willing to offer any resources that I thought were necessary to get it across the finish line.

And in fact, the CEO at the time actually offered me the opportunity to go outside and get professional consulting services. And I turned him down, because for two, one, I didn't think we needed to spend the money, because I had a very particular methodology that I wanted to apply to the work. But two I knew that the system would have much more credibility and legitimacy if it was built by the people who actually did those roles day in and day out.

That makes sense, and I know that you talked about exit interviews and sitting in on those. Did you bring any other data? Did you do any surveys? Did you bring anything else to the team?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (03:55): No, the exit interviews were sort of all the data I needed, right to be able to say that three quarters of exiting employees cited, that is the most common reason. And then anecdotally, we were able to prove that out. And that was what people were hearing was this is a great organization, but I feel like I've plateaued. And it hadn't been adequately addressed in the past.

So we knew it was a glaring need, there was no path for people to clearly understand how they could chart their next adventure at HBP. Clearly, promotions happened, advancement happen, but it was a little scattershot. It was very dependent upon whom your manager was. And so we removed a lot of agency from employees to be able to take ownership of what their career looked like at HBP.

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (04:38): You know, if you really want to empower and enable people, you want to give them the roadmap to do that. You want them to own it, if it becomes management's responsibility, that's just room for disaster because we're not going to get it right. We're not going to be able to think about everybody all the time. So it's a lot easier to put commander destiny in the hands of that singular person.

I agree completely. So what were some of the obstacles that you encountered during the process of delineating career hierarchies, and identifying competencies? And did you create competencies for each level and function? How was it structured?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (05:14): Yeah. So, in terms of obstacles, the biggest challenge was the organization saying, we need this yesterday, and managing expectations that this was not going to be something that was going to be built in seven days. In fact, it took us nine months from start to final launch.

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (05:30): And we did get some pushback from people wondering, this is HRs job, why are you recruiting us to help us build it? And it became really apparent that having incumbents identify the specific competencies and then build out the specifics of those expectations, made it a lot easier for the organization to support because they were like, yeah, that is the role, and that is how success is found in that role.

My team could have easily cut and pasted and gone to the American Association of Finance Professionals, and sow in those competencies, but those don't necessarily reflect the needs of our business. And so it was really just bespoke and absolute customized, and built for what we need to be successful. So we started with a process where the executive team actually brainstormed what they thought were the key skills needed for their businesses, and understanding strategically what we would need in the future. They came to me with about 50, and we were able to synthesize those into 20.

We're not as special as we think. Right, Felicia, there was a lot more commonality across those job families than we originally thought. So we got that down to 20. And then we recruited 120 of our 600 employee base, to then work on each one of those families. With an Executive leader, who were serving as a sponsor, for several of those job families. We identified each of the specific competencies, and then specifically articulated each of those mastery levels for each competency.

So if you look at the HR career ladder, we have five technical competencies. And then within each of those are four mastery levels. And you can go okay, competency one, mastery level three, what does that look like? Competency four, mastery level one, what does that look like? And there is a sheet of that for every job family, one for marketing, one for finance, one for sales, so that everybody clearly understands what those expectations are.

And those levels are crystal clear?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (07:26): Yes, yes, there is a whole rubric, that is not negotiable. So what it means to be a director is the same in sales, in engineering, and in customer service. So if you need to be expert in three of your technical competencies, to be a director, that is true, regardless of the job, family you're in, that enables internal mobility, because the expectations are the same, but it's also really explicitly understood in the model.

Got it. And could you elaborate on the structure and frequency of the discussions that took place among stakeholders, and who were the stakeholders?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (08:03): So I was the overarching stakeholder, clearly the senior executives of the team, because that was the group that I most needed to appeal to, because mobilizing 120 employees to do something that's not in their day job takes a huge degree of commitment. And that's also partly why it took us nine months to build out that model, because they had their own day jobs to do.

And because they're not HR professionals, there was some learning curve, and we needed to account for that time. So the build out of the model took place, actually over four months, because people needed to do that while they did and attended to their regular expectations.

And so getting the executive team to give the organization time to build that out, was probably the hardest discussion, but also not hard, because they were fully behind the act.

And what measurable impacts on retention, or engagement, or internal mobility have been observed while implementing this framework, or in other words, what's in it for leadership?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (09:00): So we have seen a doubling in internal mobility, since we've launched. We've completed a full year since we built out the career pathing. We are halfway through this fiscal year, and we are on track to double our rate of internal mobility, and we are through the first year since launching these career paths. So that's the direct impact.

It's because now that the expectations are a lot clearer people can plan their development so that they can meet the hurdles and the expectations of whatever the next level is. In terms of retention engagement, probably not a straight line, but clearly an indirect influence, and our turnover is about 7%.

And when we did our last fall engagement survey, which was a year ago, we're now doing one again, our NPS score was a full 25, when 10 is sort of considered to be very, very good. So I think against attrition, retention, and turnover, mobility, we're doing really, really good.

And I would assume that it's going to take some time for people to actually fulfill their career goals, going through this framework and understanding how to get from A to B.

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (10:11): One of the things that was a really important tenet of this program was that the program was not going to measure time in seat. Right, though, so long as you could acquire the skills and demonstrate mastery, we didn't care if it took you six months, or if it took you six years. And so some people were coincidentally already on the cusp of a promotion. But now that we could clearly outline what the next level look like, they're like, oh, my gosh, I'm practically there.

So I think that's also why we've seen an acceleration in internal mobility is that now it was really crystal clear for people. But also, I think we've just gotten better at having those conversations, because I'll tell you, one of... one of my favorite anecdotes is actually not at Harvard Business Publishing, but in a previous organization, where I had a really ambitious finance professional, who ticked all the boxes technically, and really wanted to become a director.

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (11:13): And I said, you are a rock star in terms of your productivity and your output. But in terms of how you interact with teams, which was a really important dimension, of whether or not you could be promoted, you're a little bit of a renegade, you're a solo act. And to become a director, you really need to demonstrate that you can collaborate, that you can partner that your sphere of influence extends beyond just you and your department. And until such time you can do that you're not going to become a director.

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (11:38): So it really facilitated that conversation, because in that instant, he said, I get it. And he went to work to go make that, right. So it's a tool also, for managers to have the kinds of conversations that a lot of them really struggle with, because you have to give really difficult feedback, you have to be able to be really granular and give specific examples so that the person knows what to change. And this enables all of that.

And so it's not necessarily have I fulfilled my dream job in the right role, and so forth. It's the transparency, where people feel more comfortable understanding where they're at, where they're going, and how to get there.

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (12:15): Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things, right, that really helps people feel committed to the organization, and to their managers is predictability, that if I do X, I know I'm going to get Y. There's nothing more unsettling than if I do X, sometimes I get z, sometimes I get an orange, and another day, I get a zebra. I can't make sense of how things get done.

But if I know if I put in this kind of input, I'm going to get this output. So if I do these things, I know I'm going to become a director, it's really easy to know how to prioritize and place your energies. When it's in a black box. It's just all a guessing game. So to the extent that HR and leaders can make that, to your point, really transparent, it just unlocks so many opportunities for employees that before were hidden.

And were you able to identify the skill sets that most people needed in the organization and pair that with talent development or trainings or on the job experiences? What was that like?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (13:13): Yeah, so having now built out this career framework, it's really become a foundation to everything else that we do.

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (13:20): So when we go hire, for example, a sales director, will go to the sales career ladder, and we'll look across and say, okay, a director needs to have these skills, at this master level, and that creates our interview questions, because now we know exactly what we're looking for against what competencies.

Similarly, when we go out, and we identify our learning and development, we go and say, we have this competency, but we have a big gap in the organization. So now we need to either go make or go buy that skill.

So it's really helped us talk a lot about our talent in ways that we weren't used to doing in such a unified way through recruiting, to onboarding to development to even off board, right, like we can identify, this person is continually struggling to showcase the skills at the standard we need, it's no longer a good match. It's just really been helpful universally.

And talk to me a little bit more about that. How did you come up with this talent development strategy and structure and then be able to take the findings and embed it into perhaps talent acquisition strategies or onboarding or whatever that might look like?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (14:25): Yeah, so the OD team has done a fantastic job really, again, using data. So once in combination with performance reviews, with development plans, with our engagement survey, talking to senior leaders in the organization, she was able- she and that team were able to reconcile all that data and identify, Okay, these are the skills we need, this is where we have gaps both at an organization and a team and an individual level, and then respond to that by saying, Okay, we're going to build out this course where we're going to send you to this class, we're going to create these opportunities for you on the job, so that we lift all boats.

It's been a really holistic kind of analysis that we're really starting to see the payoff for. And again, it's another way to demonstrate that HR can really be a strategic partner because we were ahead of that when we were waiting for the business to say, Okay, we need more data forward see. We could see that...we could see that in the results of everything that we were looking at.

And we could come to the table and say, We need to go tackle this. And they'd be like, yes, go, go do that, because that was on the tip of our tongues anyway.

Was it difficult to engage other leaders beyond the executive team to participate, and what does participation from managers and leaders look like in this type of strategic building?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (15:45): I think some of it is education, right, because they haven't been asked to participate in this level. Some of it is there are those who've been just chomping at the bit for the opportunity. So it's kind of meeting people and the organization where they are. But I think, once they could understand the benefit of it, it was pretty easy to do. Intellectually, the technically the work was difficult, again, because they're not HR professionals, they're not used to really scoping out competencies, and then expressing those in a way that's really useful.

So there was some of that work. But at the end of it, they could look back on a piece of work that they knew was solid. And that would grease the skids for other work in the future. So this is an organization that's by its nature is pretty collaborative, I would say it's actually very collaborative. And I think once people got on board, they're like, Okay, I see the value in this.

And again, we were sensitive to not ask them to cram it all into three weeks time, we gave them months to do it, which I think is really important for any organization that wants to embark on work like this- really makes sure that the project timeline can adequately account for the fact that people have their homework to do on top of that.

In doing a project like this, I've been met with resistance from legacy employees who are saying and looking at me and saying, we've always done it this way. Why would we have to change? Why would we have to do it another way? I've been promoted several times. Now I have to follow this rubric. How do you engage with someone that has some hesitation to the process?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (17:21): Great point Felicia. It's one of the things that we said coming out of the gate was this, we wanted to make sure this was not punitive, because we are in essence, changing the rules of the game for some people midway, right? They've been working towards a particular role. And then we say, oh, no, actually, the guideposts are not 10 miles further than where you thought they were.

So if someone is currently a director in the new framework, they're showing up more as a senior manager, what we said was, there was going to be no consequence of that other than we would take it on together with the employee to take the next year, and get them to where they needed to be. If after a year, there continued to be a lack of progress, that would trigger a different conversation.

We weren't going to demote you, we weren't going to take away pay, we weren't going to change your title, we were going to take a full year to get people acclimated to the new system.

And we have not had anybody fail and fall out. And in fact, most people were pegged accurately, even under the new system. So I think we really tried hard to make sure that the system was reasonable, but also ambitious at the same time. So I think we were able to balance both of those concerns.

Did you need to roll out the new strategy or structure in any way? Or was it all at once, and here's the announcement. And here's what we're doing, moving forward? How did that implementation go?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (18:46): So because it was so long, we were able to sort of bring the organization along with the journey. So we would periodically report out like, this is the stage that we're in. And now we're moving into this phase. And now we're moving into the this space. So all along the way, the organization was kept informed of where we were in the process.

And again, we had 120, we had 30% of the organization actively involved in the process.

So they also acted as advocates and ambassadors for the program. So it wasn't just the work of the HR team to be out there beating the drum on the effort, because there are lots of people were like, Oh, my gosh, this is going really, really well.

Yeah, I would imagine that communication would be a critical piece in order to roll something like this out, and making sure that people knew what we were doing behind the scenes, because not all the time people are sitting in on private one on one conversations that we're having all the time as HR professionals.

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (19:39): Yeah, I mean, it's definitely it could definitely be one of those. Be careful what you ask for, right? Like you want career development, and then it comes down you're like, well, that's not at all what I envisioned or that doesn't work for me or that makes it too hard.

And so we wanted to make sure that people weren't scared of this change, which is you know, something as HR professionals when we go through change management, you want people to feel as informed as possible because the un know is what's scary, or the unpredictable, is what creates anxiety in an organization.

We've really wanted to de-stress people out and make sure that they understood that this was really going to be for their benefit and for that of the organization.

How do you envision the trajectory of career development evolving in the future?

Angela Cheng-Cimini  (20:21): Well, I think what will happen is we'll use technology a lot more to help us identify the gaps, to help us build out development plans, right, we'll be able to input someone's last three years of performance appraisals and AI will be able to say okay, based upon what I see are the necessary skills. These are the development gaps for Joe Smith, and I'm going to build out a development plan.

I think we can accelerate the identification and the solution building a lot quicker, and perhaps even create learning opportunities using technology.

Felicia Shakiba  (20:56): That's Angela Cheng-Cimini, SVP of Talent, and CHRO at Harvard Business Publishing.

Angela Cheng-Cimini

Angela Cheng-Cimini

SVP Talent & CHRO at Harvard Business Publishing

Angela joined Harvard Business Publishing as Senior Vice President, Talent & Chief Human Resources Officer in 2021, spearheading efforts to develop a talent roadmap that supports the business strategy and create a deeply engaged and diverse workforce.

Do you like our stuff? Subscribe now.