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Illustration: Janne Iivonen

Trevor Lubinski was having second thoughts about his job. The 26-year-old was working as a Hyundai salesman for Birchwood Automotive Group, Winnipeg’s largest car dealership network, and was pondering a pivot into recruitment. But instead of scouring the want ads, he told his manager, who set up a meeting with HR to map out a plan. “They advocated for my growth,” Lubinski says. “It was incredible.”

After a seamless transition, Lubinski is now a recruiting specialist. Similar stories abound at Birchwood, where every employee is encouraged to create a clear career path that outlines how he or she can advance or move laterally. It’s a strategy that has helped earn the firm a spot on the Aon Best Employers in Canada list for the sixth time. “Employees need to know that there are opportunities for them to grow,” says president and CEO Steve Chipman, “or else you’ll lose them.”

In a large, decentralized operation—Birchwood has more than 1,100 employees spread across 13 dealerships, as well as several franchised operations—such a philosophy creates a familial vibe.

But it’s more than mere kindness. Research shows employees feel more engaged when they believe their employer is helping them fulfil their career goals, and that creates all sorts of business benefits. Indeed, Birchwood boasts an average tenure of five years—high for its sector—and consistently attracts bright, young people (the average age of its employees is 32).

It starts with a promote-from-within culture that sees 80% of all managerial roles being filled by current staffers. Such a large number serves as a potent motivator, says Stacy Parker, managing director of Toronto-based employer branding consultancy Blu Ivy, who explains that most employees, especially millennials, go into a job expecting to move up. “When you don’t meet or manage those expectations, engagement drops and people leave,” she says. Samantha Hansen, an associate professor at the University of Toronto-Scarborough who studies employee-employer relationships, says there’s a more brass-tacks business case, too. “It’s definitely cheaper to promote from within,” she says, citing a 2011 University of Pennsylvania study that found external hires took two years to catch up to the performance level of an internal hire.

To ensure a robust pipeline of talent, Birchwood offers every employee, regardless of rank, in-house training, including a three-day course based on Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Birchwood University, an eight-month virtual leadership course accredited by the University of Winnipeg. In addition, every staffer builds an online profile on the company intranet, complete with pictures, detailed education and job histories, and up-to-date skills. The site features videos profiling inspiring staff progressions—say, of a car washer turned manager. It’s like an internal LinkedIn, designed to show employees what their peers are doing and have done. And to further hammer home that there’s room to grow, the company encourages formal mentoring and job-shadowing programs.

Of course, all of these strategies only work if people feel comfortable speaking up about their career hopes. That’s why the company encourages regular one-on-one chats between employees and their direct bosses. Chief human resources officer MaryAnn Kempe says these informal discussions build trust and candour, allowing both parties to speak freely. And that helps make sensitive situations—like, say, when someone doesn’t get a new role—constructive instead of awkward. “When that happens,” she says, “we make sure they get honest feedback on why they didn’t get the job and about changes we can make related to their skill development.”

It all amounts to a workplace stacked with ambitious, loyal people like Lubinski. “If a company invests in me and my needs,” he says, “then I’ll have zero intention of going anywhere else.”


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