When Established Companies Choose to Evolve for Modern Talent: A Window Into Abbott’s Professional Development Program

How does a 128-year-old company attract young talent in a time-tested industry like healthcare? Abbott is a rare example of a company in a traditional industry that continually invests in creating relevant, engaging culture. At a time when many are stuck debating “Why do we need to change?” or “Why bend to Millennial demands?”, Abbott focuses its energy on moving forward and evolving for today and tomorrow’s world.

As a result, the company doesn’t share in the struggle to attract and retain Millennials, despite not being quite as well-known with younger audiences as companies such as Google.

One ingredient in Abbott’s recipe is their two-year premier new hire Professional Development Program (PDP). Many of Abbott’s top leaders today are graduates of the PDP, which began more than 40 years ago.

While the bare bones of the PDP haven’t changed, the structure facilitates intentional content evolution and inherently appeals to modern talent. Here’s how:

  • Exclusivity.  First, the company is selective in who becomes a PDP participant.  It identifies 150 top college graduates, carefully recruited to potentially become future managers and leaders.
  • Diversity. Second, the program is designed to appeal to today’s Millennial employee with diverse exposure to different operating environments.  PDP participants rotate through Abbott’s four main businesses in six-month cycles, both within the U.S. and across the world. In the first two years of a new hire’s experience, a typical PDP could work in Singapore on a nutrition project, California on a medical device team, or Chicago on a corporate finance assignment.
  • Continuity. Third, each PDP participant has two managers who provide feedback and continuity: a rotation manager and the overall program manager.  They also are assigned a mentor for more informal guidance, typically someone who was previously a part of the PDP program.

To learn more about the program, I spoke with Kaylee Goss, a Millennial engineering new-hire who has been at Abbott full-time as a PDP for one-and-a-half-years. I also caught up with Marlon Sullivan, Divisional Vice President of Talent and Development, who oversees the program. Here are three distinct practices of the PDP that engage modern talent.

Practice 1: The Pitch

One of the most common mistakes corporations make today is underestimating their current talent. After an often grueling interview process, new hires join the organization to find that they have no meaningful work plan and must spend significant time on tasks that aren’t designed to ramp up new hires quickly. Not so at Abbott.

Sullivan shared that for each rotation, managers compete for PDPs to join their team by pitching proposed projects to the PDP program manager. “Each proposed project is vetted carefully. The projects must provide very clear goals and a clear idea of what success looks like.”

The results on new hires are clear. Goss shares, “I was given the chance to do real, meaningful work. Even though the time is short, I could make an impact, because they assigned time-sensitive projects. It enabled me to become adaptable and a quick learner.”

In her short tenure with Abbott, Goss has already had a wide array of experiences at Abbott – both personal and professional. From a rotation in Orange County, CA, in Abbott’s vision care business, to a molecular diagnostics rotation in Chicago, to her current rotation in Ireland in Abbott’s medical device business, Goss has gained an impressive amount of business acumen, technical skills, and transferable knowledge than she might have at companies where unstructured training in a single role is the prevailing approach. Abbott has drastically shortened new hire and future leader development time by investing time and resources in creating a structured learning and growth environment.

Practice 2: Curate Learning Needs

Another mistake companies make is rarely changing the content of new hire learning programs. They keep the same curricula and assume that what new hires needed yesterday is what they need today. Abbott, on the other hand, follows a crucial insight: mirror new-hire training with the changes that occur in the business.

Sullivan explained how Abbott curates new-hire learning needs from two places: the biggest challenges facing senior level leaders today and the skills gaps shown by the PDP cohorts themselves. The first is nearly revolutionary. If you want to develop the leaders of tomorrow, why not start by training them in the challenges being faced by current leaders today?

Training topics added to the PDP program in recent years address globalization, learning agility, and dealing with ambiguity. These are often only discussed as challenges at senior levels of leadership when it is too late, too costly, and too risky to build these capabilities.

As a result of the changing business landscape, Abbott has evolved the PDP from a local program to one that’s more global and diverse since 70 percent of their business is now in countries other than the US. It’s telling that, of the 150 participants, half are from key emerging markets and half are either women or minorities. 33 percent of the participants experience a global rotation and, even if an expat assignment isn’t in the cards, the focus is on giving participants global projects where they can interact with co-workers, suppliers, and vendors from other countries and cultures.

Secondly, the PDP program manager monitors the overall PDP class each year to identify skills gaps. Said Sullivan: “On at least a quarterly, if not monthly, basis, we calibrate across the PDP cohort to look at developmental areas that come up and create formal development programs to add to the learning agenda.” Recently, through this process, working across generations was identified as a skill gap. Now, as a part of new hire training curricula, cross-generational workplace training has been added as a topic.

Goss remarks on what a difference this has made:

“I don’t ever get the feeling that one generation is more important than the other in the workforce. I’ve had one-on-one interviews with people who have been working for Abbott for 30 years. We are both willing to learn from each other. I’m really open to learning about their career, and to get advice from them. They are willing to learn from me too in terms of my fresh perspective and new ideas.”

Practice 3: Remembering the Follow Through

Many companies complain that they’ve invested in recruiting or a single training program and then new hires leave. “So what’s the point of investing?” they ask. Companies need to figure out that engaging internal talent is a marathon, not a sprint.

After making these great investments in global experiences and program management, Abbott doesn’t forget the follow through. Ensuring they retain PDP participants is mission critical. Sullivan reports that 75 percent of PDP participants stay with the company and, today, about 500 alums of the PDP are in leadership and management positions.

One key way they do this through the PDP mentor program. Remarked Goss: “I have a formal mentor who went through the PDP program over 30 years ago. He works with me every rotation to figure out what roles to take next and also to figure out what role to transition to after the PDP program.”

Abbott also increases retention by establishing expectations from the very beginning about the transition from PDP to a longer assignment in one of Abbott’s business divisions after the PDP program is over.

“The PDP is a lot of fun sprints. You graduate and then you think what’s next after six months?” said Sullivan. “Context is very important and we start talking about that during on-boarding. We talk about the benefits of being in a role longer term. We explain that in the PDP program you are in an individual contributor assignment as part of a broader team. As a PDP graduate, you are in a more senior level individual contributor or a manager. ‘What got you here, won’t necessarily get you there’ is the mindset we instill.”

The Modern Talent Evolution

This is just one program that builds Abbott’s culture and has kept up with core values, yet evolved to engage modern talent. Instead of arguing against the inevitable workplace evolution, Abbott has already moved forward with creating a culture that balances modern needs with time-tested best practices and values.

Goss summarizes it well: “Most of my friends are really in awe of my experience with this program and all the opportunities I’ve had, places I’ve been able to live, jobs I’ve been able to do, skills I’ve been able to learn. I’m looking forward to learning about new jobs and new types of roles, learning things that I’m good at that I didn’t know I was good at. That’s what Abbott does for me that makes me not want to look at other companies.”

And despite what we hear about Millennial job-hopping, Kaylee Goss has no intention of leaving. That’s because Abbott has answered the most pressing question for her, and the many other Millennials, “Why would she leave?” In that sense, the question becomes truly rhetorical for Abbott, and for its young talent, because as Kaylee put it, “That’s a question I have no answer to.”




Crystal Kadakia is a two-time TEDx speaker, author, and consultant on Millennials and the Modern Workplace. Her company, Invati Consulting, champions what she calls “talent driven organization design” to modernize the workplace through speaking, training, and consulting solutions.  She is the creator of the acclaimed virtual, blended training on generations, Generation University™, and the Modern Culture Assessment™ that drives organizations to strategically shift culture for the needs of modern employees.