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Insights, advice and mentorship from people leaders to help navigate the challenging & rewarding "messy middle" between Product-Market Fit & IPO

Career Development: What Startups Can Learn From Corporations

Davina Mazaroli worked on a team of 200,000 people. There were offices in every major city across the world. In 2018, they had 45.8% of the market share. Ever heard of Budweiser? Meet its parent company, AB InBev.

Mazaroli oversaw people and talent for AB InBev’s North American business, upwards of 18,000 employees. Now she’s the head of people at Sidewalk Labs, one of the Alphabet (Google’s parent company) “Other Bets.” Sidewalk Labs is small—about 130 employees—and focused on innovating city design through affordability and sustainability.

The two companies don’t have much in common, but Mazaroli is applying lessons she learned at AB InBev to define Sidewalk’s career development and performance management strategy.

Although startups often scoff at large company bureaucracy, a structured performance management and career development process is a feature, not a bug. It’s not an area your HR leader or manager should handle ad hoc. When it comes to career development, small companies should take a page from the Fortune 500 playbook, and then add their own spin.

Why Career Development Matters

The number-one thing millennials look for at work is career development. If they can’t see a path to gain new experiences, skills, or promotions, they’ll leave. A recent study showed that the average millennial has already had as many jobs after 10 years in the workforce as the average person in their 50s over their entire career.

Younger workers are searching for personal growth through diverse pathways; they want to be able to tell a story. “It comes down to a fundamental shift in how much value people place on their careers as it relates to their personality and their personal brand,” says Mazaroli.

So how do you engage and retain millennials and Gen Z? Increasingly, by way of performance management, fair promotions, and proactive career development.

That doesn’t mean you have to model your company culture after a 150-year-old corporation. But you can apply some of its structure to your own systems on a smaller scale.

Applying Big Lessons to a Smaller Company

For instance, AB InBev funnels employees by their potential performance and career interests, Mazaroli explains. They create career paths within functions, such as a sales training career path where employees go into the field, meet with and learn about wholesalers, retailers, and the difference between on-premise and off-premise accounts. Employees move through these paths with their fellow cohorts of “trainees.”

While startups and smaller companies might not be able to create dozens of career paths—simply because they don’t yet have enough employees—they can create cross-functional exposure as a form of career development. In this model, high-performing employees could shadow or meet with leaders from different departments. The intent is to condition well-rounded leaders to staff the company’s executive team ranks in the future.

“If you want to get to CEO/president/C-suite level, you have to have multiple different types of experiences,” says Mazaroli.

At Sidewalk Labs, the company doesn't have the breadth of opportunities for cross-functional exposure, but Mazaroli still instituted a rigorous cross-functional promotions process, whereby senior leaders take time to interact with and review teams across the company, not just their own. They have two goals with this approach:

  1. Exposure: You’re more likely to get promoted if leaders know you, if they understand your strengths & development areas (via performance reviews), taking you to coffee, and observing your presentations.

  2. Equity and inclusion: Part of having an equitable workforce is making sure that underrepresented groups, who often do not have the same internal networks, get exposure and opportunities. All parts of the company should have an equal opportunity for exposure and advancement.

As far as timing promotions and raises, that’s the “million-dollar question,” says Mazaroli. While she hesitates to assign a catch-all approach, it’s important to start a schedule and stick with it. Structured check ins and regular review cycles can help maintain clarity, create consistency, manage expectations, and reduce bias.

Sidewalk Labs does annual 360 performance reviews and formal mid-year check ins. But for some other growth-stage companies, twice per year may be too heavy-handed. It’s individual.

Those check ins are a set opportunity to address and document performance management issues. Otherwise, you can’t always rely on even the best managers to provide critical feedback.

“People in general are very, very bad at managing performance, especially underperformers,” she says. Most managers don’t want to share feedback that may be perceived as criticism, instead they hope their employees will magically improve over time.

But performance management is a crucial practice for any size company. “I push managers and leaders really hard to address the issue head on,” she says, for two reasons:

  1. No feedback, no improvement. Simple as that.

  2. Avoiding critical feedback does individuals a major disservice over time. Not only aren’t they learning and improving, they may actually believe they’re doing well. Mazaroli calls this avoidance “ruinous empathy.”

Instead, Mazaroli approaches these conversations with the following mantra: “Clarity is kindness.”

That’s a great place to start: with a simple guiding principle. From there, smaller companies can implement cross-functional exposure by way of brown bags across teams. Leaders can train up on performance management and ways to provide healthy critiques and direct developmental feedback. Start to put regular employee check ins and reviews on a calendar—and stick to them.

You won’t grow to 200,000 employees overnight, but you might retain a few of your best millennials—and then you’d have something good in common with Fortune 500s.


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