First-Person Account: Custom Careers

MassMutual delivers tools to manage and expand its employees' career paths.

By Betsy Larson Jun 1, 2013
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June Cover

I’m heading up I-91 to work. I look down at the speedometer—I’m going 83 miles per hour. Whoa, I’d better ease up on the gas, but I can’t wait to get to work.” This is what Bill Dougherty told me after he landed a new role at MassMutual as a result of using the assessment tools in the company’s new Career Resource Center. The assistant vice president of change says the tools helped him think about his career in a different way and motivated him to take control of his career path. For Dougherty, this would not have been as likely to occur before the rollout of our career strategy.

Several factors motivated us to unveil a new career strategy. In 2009, the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. had weathered a historic economic downturn and “flattening” of the organization. We reduced by half our layers between policyholders and top executives, thereby enhancing efficiency and effectiveness and increasing managers’ spans of control. In a flatter and leaner company, our employees need to think about career movement differently than they have in the past.

In our 2010 employee engagement survey, staff told us they wanted more opportunities to advance their careers and the ability to clearly see paths to career progression. In fact, more than 1,000 of our 5,200 employees submitted comments on this topic.

Despite offering more-limited upward advancement opportunities, we wanted our employees to continue to look forward to meaningful careers at MassMutual and to be inspired to reach professional and personal goals. Today, having opportunities to achieve their career goals at MassMutual remains our employees’ strongest driver of engagement.

Career Strategy Team

As head of a broad-based compensation area, I lead a team that provides compensation consulting throughout MassMutual. In early 2011, we began to proactively address employees’ perceptions of careers at MassMutual—and we certainly didn’t want those perceptions to develop into a retention issue. I was among 10 HR and communications professionals serving on a newly developed team who started rethinking and redesigning our career strategy. We wanted to present a different way for employees to think about and take ownership of their careers, and we needed to provide them with the tools and developmental opportunities to do that.

As Executive Vice President of Human Resources Debra A. Palermino says, the concept of a career is “evolving from the traditional ladder, where up is the only way to go, to more of a lattice, where employees move in different directions—up, sideways and even down—gaining valuable skills and experiences to keep pace in today’s rapidly changing environment.”

Four Components

In May 2011, we began to introduce components that would be unveiled during the following 12 to 18 months. The strategy, completed in July 2012, offers employees the following tools:

Career Resource Center. Self-assessment tools help employees discover their interests, values and strengths.

Competency model and development guide. Each job description has a list of required competencies, and employees use the guide to determine what courses to sign up for or what articles or books to read in an effort to improve certain competencies. They also find tips on how to gain related experiences.

Mentoring tool. This tool provides an easy way for employees to find advisors or mentors for developing their competencies and advancing their career goals.

All employees can share their expertise with co-workers as mentors or advisors.

Job framework and job exploration tool. The job framework organizes jobs across the company by function, family, title and level. Through a tool called Career Explorer, users can see:

  • Job levels and progressions within 28 job functions and 136 job families.
  • Detailed information about each job.
  • Required professional competencies and technical skills to help employees determine what areas they need to develop to follow a particular career path.

The Framework

For about two years, HR professionals worked with senior leaders and 200 managers to build the job framework. Managers verified the information to ensure that we included the right functions, families and levels. Department representatives defined high-level job responsibilities, required competencies and technical skills for jobs with large employee populations and select other positions. When necessary, inaccurate job summaries were reviewed and rewritten by managers and employees.

The framework includes:

Job functions. The 28 broad categories of jobs include customer service, marketing, project management, systems operations, training and underwriting.

Job families. Related groups of jobs are listed under each function. For example, 12 job families under customer service range from account management, to billing and collections, to commissions and policyholder services.

Job titles. Titles now include the job family name, to give more information about what the position involves. In addition, titles have become more consistent, to help employees determine at a glance whether the job is nonexempt or exempt and an individual contributor or management position. Generally, there are three titles:

  • Job family plus “specialist” for nonexempt jobs.
  • Job family plus “consultant” for exempt individual contributor jobs.
  • Job family plus “director” for manager jobs.
  • Job levels. There can be up to three nonexempt levels and up to four exempt levels that show increasing responsibilities and career progression.
  • Information. The framework provides the following details about each job:
  • Job summary—two to three sentences describing the “essence” of the job.
  • Role characteristics—how much supervision is needed, types of duties and skills, application of certain knowledge, and amount of authority.
  • Core competency expectations—how we expect employees at each level to display our core competencies.

Introducing the Changes

While we knew that the job framework would provide the career options and job progressions employees had been asking for, we were also changing every title and introducing greater transparency in how we paid people. We switched from broad pay bands with generic titles to a market-based approach with descriptive titles and salary information for every job. For the first time, employees could see details about their jobs as well as the associated market-based salary information, and managers had to explain where an employee’s pay fell in the market and why.

As with any major change, communication was important. HR partnered with our Strategic Communications team to identify multiple media vehicles to use in preparing managers and employees, as these groups absorb information in different ways. We helped managers to understand the information and to convey to employees what the changes meant for career planning and development.

Communication Phase


Services: Insurance, investment and retirement products and services.

Ownership: Mutual company.

Top HR executive: Debra A. Palermino, executive vice president of human resources.

Employees: 6,800.
2013 revenue: $26.7 billion.
Locations: Key offices in Phoenix, Memphis, Boston and Enfield, Conn., with headquarters in Springfield, Mass.


We began communicating to managers in March 2012, three months before they were expected to start having conversations about the information with employees.

We asked a team of managers to test our messages, format and approach. The feedback was invaluable in helping us refine and clarify the messages.

For each major message, an e-mail was sent from the head of human resources. We also:

  • Conducted in-person, mandatory training for managers to help them transition employees to new titles and levels.
  • Gave managers talking points for discussions.
  • Created vignettes with examples of what could come up during these conversations.
  • Provided managers with interactive guides.

When managers began having discussions with employees, they told us that they were well-prepared: They were able to answer employees’ questions about how they were matched to their new jobs and levels, why their titles had changed, and how their pay was positioned against market-based salaries.

Buzz from Employees

Less than six months after we rolled out our career strategy and tools, there are indications that employees see value in them:

  • 3,926 visited the Career Resource Center.
  • 2,139 used Career Explorer.
  • 2,068 took courses to enhance their competencies.
  • 438 completed profiles in the mentoring tool.

We continue to receive requests from our employee-driven affinity groups to present information on our strategy and tools. Several departments have provided “career days” that allow employees to experiment with the career tools and ask questions about them.

Brenda Savage, assistant vice president of relationship management in the field relations area, says the “transparency was amazing.” She says she appreciates knowing more information about her own role, which is now available through Career Explorer.

Other employee feedback has also been positive. Employees have told us the tools help them focus on their professional interests and think about their careers logically. We will measure how the tools are used by surveying employees who have made career moves. Employee engagement surveys will provide us with measurable data, as well.

Meanwhile, we continue to remind employees about the tools and how to use them. Employees now have a way to create career paths from any starting point. They can discover qualities about themselves using self-assessment tools, develop their skills with the competency development guide, find a mentor and explore jobs across the company.

For Bill Dougherty, it all started with the Career Resource Center. He is now in a role that, in his words, “revitalized me.”

Betsy Larson is a vice president, compensation, at MassMutual in Springfield, Mass.

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