Following a not-so-linear path

Geneva-based JTI focuses on building competencies, succession planning, performance management among global workforce
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/01/2015

Career paths are changing — they’re not always linear. Which is why Japan Tobacco International (JTI) encourages employees to build their competencies and skills beyond their core functional areas of expertise, according to Ilona Alonso, global HQ human resources vice-president in Geneva.

“We take a truly global and flexible approach to help them grow within the company.”

JTI was one of five companies worldwide to receive the Top Employer Global 2015 from the Top Employers Institute, recognizing exceptional employee environments.

“Investing in people and making JTI a great place to work, a top employer, does not only attract the talented candidates from outside but it also makes employees want to have a career in our own company, so it’s from both sides a good message,” says Alonso of the award.

The 27,000-employee company is dedicated to fostering a diverse work environment where workers excel, she says.

“Recruiting the best candidates and developing employees’ skills and competencies across the organization is in JTI’s DNA. We work hard to invest in tomorrow’s leaders with a solid performance management and succession planning platform.”

If you don’t have that focus, you will not be able to attract the people you want to attract, she says. 

“It’s always important to make this balance between outside recruitment but also keeping our employees happy inside and have a career inside the company... You still need to feed your organization, of course, with talent from the bottom up and if you need specific technical skills that are very rare, well you go outside, that’s for sure, but the preferred path is an internal career path.”

About 80 per cent of JTI leaders are appointed internally and about 7,000 positions were filled or back-filled with internal candidates over the last two years, she says. Ninety-eight per cent of the company’s vice-presidents are internal promotions. 

“That is powerful, that you know this can happen to you,” says Alonso. “Really, you build your career in JTI.”

The tobacco industry is changing and new roles are emerging, which has implications for career paths, she says.

“The traditional single functional careers are becoming less common... so many JTI leaders have diverse career paths and this trend is, I think, accelerating,” she says. “You have to go also horizontal in your career, that’s something new too, I think. You need a lot of different jobs horizontal before you can go vertical and that’s fine, that’s not a problem — you need to learn a lot of different competencies and capabilities beyond your core functional skills to be better-equipped as a leader.”

More than 800 employees at JTI are on long-term, short-term or rotational international assignments, and the assignments are very helpful for their careers and providing cross-functional opportunities, says Alonso.

“It’s retaining talent and increasing our pool of future leaders; it’s a long-term investment, so if you offer these kinds of international assignments, cross-functional opportunities, short-term assignments, that is a long-term investment. You will not see, the first six months, what’s happening but you will see it in the long term.”

Succession planning

Part of JTI’s success is because of a strong focus on succession planning, at all levels of the organization. Planning is done in every market, in every country, and people in leadership positions are discussed on a regional and functional level, so there are a lot of layers, she says.

“There’s real focus on succession planning on a one-to-one (basis), but also succession talent pools,” says Alonso. “It really focuses on the capabilities and the behaviours that make future leaders, not just past experience but also look at the future. And it has increased options and flexibility for the organization in terms of selecting the future leaders. So succession planning is a big basis for us.”

It’s about preparing employees  who are in development to acquire skills for the next level, says says Nancy Bourdon, HR director for the Canada market at JTI-Macdonald in Mississauga, Ont. 

“We focus on succession planning and the talent pool because we don’t have high turnover and we realized within Canada that we have a lot of people approaching retirement every year, so we need to make sure to have people from within that can replace them.”

Performance management

Also important is the company’s performance appraisal system, Dialogue. It’s a global system that looks at the how and what of a person’s job, along with career aspirations, says Alonso.

“We will go and see every manager that has people reporting to him and we’ll discuss every person after the Dialogue and have a career path, training, development — whatever is in there, we’ll discuss it and make a plan,” she says. “And the beauty is that it’s a global system, so you can compare apples and apples.” 

While the appraisals are done once a year, the dialogue continues throughout the year. 

“If you meet your manager or you meet with your people only once a year, there’s something wrong. It really needs to be setting the objectives in the beginning of the year and then, during the year, you go through them, have a dialogue with people: Are these objectives still relevant? Do you want to change it or adjust them? How is it going — not just what but how is it going?” she says.

“It should be an ongoing process during the year where you meet your people ongoing and adjust to everything — and not having a surprise in November of what you’re seeing.”

In Canada, employees actively participate in their career development and help direct their own career paths, says Bourdon.

“Employees expect to have meaningful discussions with their managers and with HR as well about how to reach their career goals. So our role is to help employees identify what they want to achieve in their careers, and to (provide) the training, resources and tools and to make them succeed.”

So if someone tells their manager, “I want to be at this level in three years,” HR will ensure — because it’s reflected in Dialogue — that there are development objectives identified and follow up with suggestions on what sort of training is required, externally or internally, she says. 

“Before, the expectation of the employees was ‘Well, you’re going to tell me where I’m going to go,’ but now the career paths belong in their hands, so that’s how we see the change over the years.” 

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