Why Internal Mobility So Often Fails

Perhaps no area of talent management fails so consistently to produce intended outcomes as internal talent mobility (i.e., cross-geography, cross-business or cross-functional moves).

 Too often, mobile talent doesn’t succeed; they end up under performing, stalling out in their careers and/or turning over.

 It seems getting mobility to work effectively is extremely hard.

 Given the costs of mobility, especially expat assignments, understanding and addressing the reasons for such systematic failure should be of real value to organizations.

 Alignment of mobility programs with underlying talent and reward strategies is essential to making mobility work.

The tendency to “silo” mobility management in a transaction-oriented mobility “function” makes achieving such alignment almost impossible.

 The solution lies both in structural changes affecting accountability for mobile talent and in the application of advanced analytics to identify impediments to success. 

*Originally posted on LinkedIn on June 9, 2018*

Across my twenty-five years of applying advanced analytics to help client organizations measure and understand their Internal Labor Market (ILM) dynamics and inform decisions about workforce management, perhaps the most consistently disappointing results I have seen relate to internal talent mobility, whether it be expat assignments, cross-business or cross-function/department moves. Indeed, I can think of only a handful of organizations where our modeling work shows “mobile talent” actually succeeding and staying with the organization as compared to their non-mobile colleagues. 

Getting mobility right appears to be very hard. 

There are, I believe, four reasons for this systematic failure:

  1. The objectives of mobility programs are not clearly drawn: planned, development-oriented moves combine with ad hoc, purely opportunistic ones to confound decisions about mobile talent and undermine the signals about the value the reward system actually places on breadth of experience within the organization
  2. The “wrong” people are moving and for the “wrong” reasons
  3. No one “owns” the mobile talent; they easily fall through the cracks
  4. Incentives are not aligned between groups/units exporting and importing talent: no mechanism is in place to address the classic economic “externalities problem” – namely, that the benefits to mobility accrue to different units and at different levels of the organization than those who actually bear the risks and costs associated with moving people. These misalignments have been aggravated in recent years by the heavier reliance on so-called “pay for performance” programs that measure performance at the increasingly disaggregated levels. 

Each of these sources of failure reflect the highly contextual nature of mobility. Other elements of talent strategy – for example, talent acquisition, performance management, compensation, career development and rewards, etc., – have to be aligned with the goals and execution of mobility programs for mobile talent to generate returns to the business. Given the importance of talent mobility as a component of overall talent strategy, it clearly pays to take a more disciplined approach to identifying and understanding the factors that most influence whether mobile talent stays and thrives in an organization. Unfortunately, too many organizations spend far more time managing the transactions side of mobility than addressing the critical strategic considerations mentioned above. A more strategic approach is facilitated by answering six key questions:

  • What role should mobility play in the organization’s overall talent strategy?
  • Who should be moving and how frequently?
  • Should these moves be “sponsored” by management or be “spontaneous” – that is, initiated by requests from employees themselves?
  • What kind of internal moves are most beneficial from a business standpoint? Cross geography? Cross business? Cross functional?
  • Who should take responsibility for the careers and management of mobile talent? (Should they be a corporate asset?)
  • Are incentives aligned to support mobility or do they encourage “local” hoarding of top talent?

Given the kind of workforce and business data now available to organizations and the power of today’s advanced workforce analytics, it is now possible to develop an empirical basis for answering these questions. This is the subject of my recent article, “how to Manage Talent Mobility,” just published in Brink, an MMC-sponsored digital news hub and journal.

Drawing on the conceptual framework and analytical methodology detailed in Rick Guzzo’s and my earlier HBR article, “Making Mobility matter,” the current article discusses the challenges of making mobility work for organizations, using a case study of a global professional services firm to illustrate why internal mobility so often fails. It also shows how the application of advanced workforce analytics helps uncover the root causes of failure and points the way to effective solutions. The article details some key policy changes undertaken by this company pursuant to the diagnostic findings and shares the results achieved.

As with other areas of workforce strategy, deploying the tools of evidence-based management can enable a truly strategic approach to talent mobility and, in the process, generate higher returns on the considerable investments that organizations make to move their talent around.