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Home / Blog / Internal Mobility: Creating a Culture of Skills Development and Leadership

Internal Mobility: Creating a Culture of Skills Development and Leadership

A expert guide to effectively promoting and laterally moving employees within your organization.

Jay Canchola
HR Business Partner with 30 years experience in PeopleOps
Contributing Experts
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As small companies grow in headcount, leaders often desire to provide workplace experiences that will financially benefit the company and provide multiple benefits to the workforce. Internal mobility offers this win-win scenario.

This article investigates internal mobility programs as a component of human resources (HR) that can easily be integrated into most HR strategies, seeking ways to improve upskilling, employee engagement, and employee retention.

In This Article

What is Internal Mobility?

The term internal mobility refers to the movement of employees within an organization. The movement can be vertical, within a department, or lateral between departments. Either way, internal mobility gives workers access to new career and development opportunities within the same organization. In addition, internal mobility is a group of methods used to improve employee retention rates as an alternative to external hires.

An internal mobility program is the actions taken to move internal talent throughout the organization, sometimes a vertical move and sometimes a lateral move. Whatever the direction, the moves should be made with some forethought instead of a spur-of-the-moment decision.

The benefits of internal mobility for the company include increased revenue, decreased costs, and improved employee retention. For the employees, it offers guided career paths, closing skill gaps, and providing new roles and challenges.

Why Implement an Internal Mobility Program?

It is common for people in startups and small companies to naturally take on a new role without being asked.  This is the nature of successful startups— a team of people who know each other very well and will simply see something that needs to be done and then go do it. This is especially true if the task is of interest or a challenge.

However, as the team grows and people begin to specialize in a role, i.e., spending most of their time in a single or a few functions, the cultural norm changes to take on multiple roles.

People will reprioritize tasks to things they want to do and know how to do and leave behind those tasks that require more time than is available. This is where leaders who can see the big picture can intervene and ensure people maintain the desire to learn and keep themselves challenged.

A couple of choices are available to fill new roles and old roles. The organization can use talent acquisition programs to recruit external candidates or develop internal talent via an internal mobility program.

What Makes a Successful Internal Mobility Strategy?

Like any good business strategy, the elements of WHO will do WHAT and WHEN should be crystal clear to all in the business or organization.

The Stakeholders

There are two key players in managing internal mobility: leadership and those people doing the moving, i.e., internal talent.

Leadership and hiring managers are often the default groups for internal mobility decisions, especially if they know the internal talent well enough to judge talent mobility.

Leadership should take this opportunity to create a culture in which employees feel psychologically safe to come forward and volunteer to participate in the internal mobility programs. An environment like this mitigates any bias and improves the benefits of internal mobility, such as employee engagement and increased upskilling.

Leadership can create this inclusive culture by having a transparent process on how top talent will be identified and chosen. The process should be very public by communicating often throughout the company. For example, human resources can ensure that internal candidates receive the message.

A job description can be widely shared and should include information on selection criteria, the nature of the job (such as whether it is a new position or an existing vacancy), who will make the decision, and compensation. If your organization practices skills-based hiring, this would be an excellent time to emphasize that a degree will not be required and that attitude and passion are prioritized.

As mentioned above, internal talent should feel encouraged and psychologically safe to apply, mainly if the work entails new skills and competencies and completing tasks that have not been done before.

Types of Internal Mobility

The “WHAT” that needs to be done can take many forms. Multiple initiatives can run simultaneously depending on internal opportunities.  Some of the most popular internal mobility best practices are as follows:

Job Rotation

Usually, it is a planned event in which the movement of employees is deliberate across functional areas to increase their scope of knowledge. This exposure aids career growth and, thereby, the employee’s value to the company.

Several questions arise:

  • Backfill/Replacement: Can a department that “loses” a person due to job rotation replace or backfill the vacancy? If so, will it be via external or internal hiring?
  • Number of Rotations: Does the employee move through one, two, three, or more rotations?
  • Length of Rotations: Is the rotation short-term or long-term? One week, one month, nine months, or more for each rotation? What time is required to teach the employee skills that validate the rotation in different departments?
  • Compensation Increase: Does the person receive a pay increase? In the case of project-based mobility, does the increase go away if they return to their original department?
  • Selection Process: Who selects the person or people to participate in the job rotation? Is there an existing talent pool? Is the selection process competitive, i.e., people apply and compete? Or is the process non-competitive?
  • Program Management: Who will monitor the job rotation program and its effects on workforce planning? Does the job rotation program stand alone or integrated into a more extensive leadership development program?
  • Performance Management: How will individual performance be measured?
  • Career Goals: What are the specific knowledge areas and competencies people are expected to understand?
  • Company Goals: What specific business goals and employee experiences will be impacted?

Leadership Development

Leadership development is usually defined as a systemic approach to developing individual skill sets and capabilities for future upward mobility.

It can be viewed as a special type of professional development in which people take on different roles and face new opportunities. Leadership is one of the most researched topics in business. We all hope to find a magic formula or set of attributes that, once defined, can be captured and repeated to produce great organizational leaders.

This reminds me of the expression, “I will know leadership when I see it.” I have seen leaders walk into a room of 300 people, speak for three minutes, and then leave. Yet every one of the 300 people felt as if the person spoke directly to them and could relate to what the leader was saying.

To some extent, leader behaviors or attributes that can be fostered through internal mobility depend on circumstances. However, leadership qualities may come to light in individuals who are given the opportunity to develop leadership skills.

Markers for Success in Leadership Development
  • Strategic and Visionary Thinking: The employee thinks clearly with the strategic capacity to sift through complex information and focus on the critical few priorities.
  • Customer Focus: They integrate customer information into effective strategies.
  • Ethical Leadership: The employee accepts responsibility for their actions, including mistakes, and does not shrink from speaking the whole truth.
  • Achieves Alignment: The employee achieves alignment with customers, colleagues, and owners. They inspire people to follow.
  • Performance/Results: They publicly recognize individuals and teams and reward strategies that link to success metrics.
  • Business Acumen: The employee can communicate complex business subjects.
  • Innovation/Creativity: The employee creates an environment in which prudent risk-taking is rewarded.
  • Diversity/Equity/Inclusion: The employee champions differences to fully leverage the capabilities of individuals. They connect the dots between DEI and business success stories.
  • People Development: The employee enlists people from different departments to shape the environment, remove roadblocks, and motivate others.
  • Influential Communication: The person speaks persuasively, can influence others, is viewed as a leader, and is confident to say, “I don't know.”
  • Self-Management: They accept feedback and know when to speed up or slow down their efforts.

Using the leadership behaviors above, snapshot assessments can be created in order to monitor individuals as they pursue their leadership development plans and career paths.

An example of a snapshot assessment for leadership.

Another common tool for comparing leaders is known as “9 Block”:

An example of a Nine-Block leadership assessment.

Succession Planning

The best way to think about succession planning is as a subset of leadership development— you are now developing leaders for a precise role. Imagine your typical organizational chart with names and job titles in boxes showing the reporting relationships. Now, add a list of names being considered for that specific role to each box.

In addition to the usual leadership metrics, a best practice is to include descriptors such as “ready now,” “ready in 1-2 years”, and “ready in 2-4 years”.  It’s also best practice to include demographic info, especially race and gender.


Probably the most common method of moving people throughout the organization is promotion.  Relative to leadership development, succession planning, and job rotation, promotion is easier to manage— primarily due to its narrow scope and the belief of hiring managers that they know how to do it. 

Promotions are usually based on straightforward metrics such as achievement of goals and time on the job.

However, promotion is also one of the most problematic methods for ensuring effective people growth and employee satisfaction because of bias and systemic and racial discrimination. There have been numerous studies that document the decline of women and people of color in promotion systems. 

The short story is that beginning with front-line jobs up, the percentage of women and other marginalized groups declines as people are promoted into supervisory, managerial, and executive roles. This decline can be seen in all sectors of the talent marketplace, including private, public, and academic sectors.

A graph of female representation in the corporate pipeline.

The Place of DEI (Diversity/Equity/Inclusion) in Internal Mobility

If people are promoted based only on merit, there will be more women and people of color as you move up the company ladder. Enlightened leadership needs to be aware of the built-in barriers facing internal talent and take steps to remove them.

Removing barriers has helped businesses as far back as 500 years ago. For example, the Medici family of Florence, Italy, implemented a talent acquisition and talent management program by bringing together and sponsoring people from different disciplines— architects, sculptors, scientists, and philosophers. They were from different cultures and religions and spoke different languages. What resulted was one of the most creative periods of human history.

What actions can hiring managers take to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion goals are achieved while executing an internal mobility program?

A simple answer to this question is, “It’s not rocket science, but it is hard work.” For example, by displaying six basic leadership behaviors, hiring managers can go a long way toward their DEI business goals:

  1. Acknowledge other’s presence, and know their name!
  2. Value others' opinions.
  3. Give others ongoing verbal feedback, good/bad, open/honest.
  4. Show that you appreciate and value others.
  5. Explain business decisions to others.
  6. Respect the diversity of thought.

Ask questions, then listen to understand. People want to be challenged, want to learn continuously, and want to have career goals. The challenge for leadership is to ensure people in authority are held accountable for creating a workplace that allows people to continuously learn, feel challenged, and develop and follow a career plan they feel is their own.

For example, where is the accountability if the selection team or recruitment team members are all white males and females who end up selecting another white male or female for an internal mobility program?

DEI Challenges

It can sometimes be challenging to hold people accountable. The difficulty is multiplied, given the current pushback in American businesses today.

DEI has been politicized, especially when leadership does not see immediate results or operating budgets must be cut. “DEI” is a straightforward idea but has been weaponized, like Affirmative Action, Woke, Systemic Racism, Systemic Sexism and Systemic Discrimination. A common and clear framework for DEI has been illustrated in a graphic from Next Pivot Point as follows:

  • Diversity is about representation.
  • Equity is about eliminating systems that are built to discriminate.
  • Inclusion is about behavior. As mentioned above, appropriate leadership behaviors are fundamental.
  • Belonging is about feeling like you belong in the organization.
  • Justice is the assurance that no one is profiting at the expense of a marginalized group, such as women.

Building a Workplace Culture That Encourages Internal Mobility

We can think of culture as all the rules that govern an organization's workplace, workflows, and professional development. Culture can also include unwritten rules that influence the company— especially processes and systems that impact internal talent mobility, open positions, and development opportunities.

In some companies, predetermined career paths lead to success in the long run. In practice, however, leadership can come from anywhere in the company at any time. There is no one perfect career path that will guarantee business success. Therefore, it’s crucial to have a culture that acts like radar and can identify internal talent, followed by an easy way for people to follow their career paths to close skill gaps.

An Intentional Culture of Development

How do you build a culture instead of developing without formal steps? Bottom line: set clear expectations. If you can answer “yes” to most of the following, you are well on your way to creating a culture that encourages internal mobility:

  • Is there an expectation that internal talent will be moved to where they are needed?
  • Is career development a high priority?
  • Are mentoring and mentorship provided?
  • Is there an expectation that internal talent will first fill open roles?
  • Are retention and internal recruitment considered best practices regarding employee engagement?
  • Is performance recognized and rewarded?

Leveraging HR Technology for Internal Mobility

The most critical HR technology a company can leverage is one that turns employee data into information.

A human resources information system (HRIS) with native analytics or a dedicated people analytics tool is purpose-built to give you the insight you need.

In terms of data that should be captured, it’s simple— everything that is legal and for which there is a business need.

For example, capturing data about pay and promotions can be combined with demographics to create information about whether white employees are being promoted faster than black employees. Capturing data about performance can be combined with supervisory data to generate information about whether there is a difference between a supervisor's or manager's ability to inspire high performance.

With the development of AI in HR Systems, HR technology can be leveraged to increase the probability of success for any internal mobility program. These tools can, to a reasonable degree, predict leadership potential, identify opportunities for reskilling, and use

There are no HR Systems that will meet every company’s needs. What’s most important is to determine what questions need to be asked and then find the data that will yield actionable information. The best HR systems allow users to capture disparate data and then quickly analyze the data, looking for trends and patterns.

Final Thoughts on Internal Mobility

There is no one best culture for success, but there are fundamental organizational attributes that create a space in which an internal mobility program can flourish. The first is common sense; the second is the opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute to the mission.

Jay Canchola
HR Business Partner with 30 years experience in PeopleOps
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Jay’s 30-year HR career includes working in private, academic, and public sectors of the economy. He has contributed expertise in the PeopleOps departments of brand name organizations such as Honeywell Raytheon, Arizona State University, and the Arizona Governor’s Office where he held HR roles in leadership development, employee relations, talent acquisition, compensation, compliance, performance management, and diversity.  

He has been certified since 2001 by SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management) as an SPHR (Senior Professional in Human Resources).

Jay has led employee and management teams that have produced significant bottom-line results such as:

  • Improved management performance
  • Improved business unit productivity
  • Reduced corporate liability
  • Improved employee benefits
  • Reduced recruitment costs

An 8th-generation native of Arizona, Jay has a bachelor’s degree in Human Biology from Stanford University and an MBA from Northern Arizona University.  He also attended Graduate School at Yale University. In addition, Jay completed Cornell University’s Richard Netter Workshop on Workforce Demographics.

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