Michael Masiello, Senior VP of Software Development, and Supriya Mimani, Director of HR Projects (Talent and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) were both instrumental in the launch and success of Audible’s Next Chapter Returnship program. As Audible gets ready to launch their third cohort, we talked to them about ways the program has grown since inception, the crucial support Path Forward provided to the program, and the unique attributes returning professionals contribute to a team.
Click to read their answers to each question, or scroll down to read the entire interview:
3. Michael, you played a pivotal role in supporting the program, both as a leader, internally advocating for the program, but also with the participants themselves. What does this program mean to you personally?
1. After a successful pilot, Audible decided to commit to several more cohorts. What value do you believe the Next Chapter program provides to Audible?
Just being able to bring in strong talent with a diversity of experience. If you are trying to make products for the world, it’s better if your team is like the world. And the Next Chapter program has helped us put folks on the team who have great experience, to help us build up a diverse workforce that’s engaged and at a senior level.
A big part of our company culture is to invest in our employees, and what that means is supporting them as they work, to approach mastery in whatever they seek to do. And a big part of that is mentorship.
The program allows us to bring people into the company with a really unique set of skills that come with a career break; for example, those with a caregiving break may have significant experience in time management and juggling priorities, navigating ambiguity, managing different stakeholders. And after candidates go through the program, and receive support to ramp up, these skilled professionals can then become super-powered mentors for the more junior members of our team.
2. How did the idea or concept of a returnship at Audible come to be?
As Mike mentioned, we really take diversity, equity and inclusion very seriously. And sadly, it’s no hidden fact that women make up a minority in the technical industry and the tech workforce, especially at mid-career levels. The higher up you go in the hierarchy, the lower the representation of women in tech. So we actively wanted to continue in our journey of diversity, equity and inclusion, continue to look out for new talent that could add to the diversity of our teams, to bring in innovative talent with all the unique skills sets that Mike mentioned.
We saw what the pandemic was doing to the world, and the joblessness it was creating. We also know that most caregivers tend to be women. It’s already been hard for those individuals to return to work after a break, and it’s become exponentially harder in a pandemic. So this initiative is really rooted in wanting to help out these caregivers and others who are trying to return to the workforce in these tough times.
3. Michael, you played a pivotal role in supporting the program, both as a leader, internally advocating for the program, but also with the participants themselves. What does this program mean to you personally?
I think this program aligns really well with Audibles values. This program is good for the customer, it’s good for the company, and it’s good for the world. One of Audible people’s principles is being customer-obsessed. And when you have a diversity of voices on your team, and a lot of experience, you’re going to make better products, better experiences, and you’re going to create better art.
The program is great for the company because one of the biggest challenges we have is finding strong talent with a diversity of experience and a diversity of opinions. This partnership is a great opportunity to introduce people to the company. They have some of the most sought after skills in the industry, and mid-career professionals are really hard to find. This is an opportunity to get them to come in and see what the company is like, to understand our mission and our values, and at the end, you gain employees who understand the value of Audible, who are integrated into the company.
That’s great for the company and good for the world. Another one of our People Principles is to activate caring, to respect the entire human spectrum.
And that means you have to get serious about ensuring that there’s no group being prevented from getting opportunities to contribute and succeed, like people who have left the workforce. If we can normalize the idea that leaving the workforce and reentering the workforce is a normal part of a career path, that’s going to do a lot of good for the world.
4. What has the response been from hiring managers, recruiters, and HR? Did you hear any specific feedback from managers during the recruitment process or after the returners started?
From the get-go, the excitement that this program created at Audible was very palpable. One of the first steps in the program was just identifying who your managers would be. We sent out an email asking managers if they’d be interested in joining the program. We initially wanted to start with a cohort of eleven returners. We got three times the number of managers who were interested! We had to go back and tell managers that they may need to wait for the next cohort, since this is a pilot. But the interest we got from managers is a testament to the culture we have at Audible, where everybody wants to help out and contribute to great initiatives. In fact, that was how Mike came into the program. He saw that email, and replied that he wanted to help in any way he could. And next thing I knew, he’s a champion of the initiative, as an SVP who’s so close to this project, and who’s using his reach to spread it across the organization.
We’ve had recruiters come back and tell us that this is the most fulfilling experience in their professional lives, talking to returners and seeing very palpably the impact they’re having on people’s lives. Some of these returners have been looking for jobs for many months. Our recruiters gave returners time to prepare for their interviews. That would give them tips on what works, recommendations on books to read, and really acted as coaches and mentors for these candidates. And once these returners came onboard, they told us about these interactions with recruiters and how much it motivated them to want to be part of such a supportive company culture. Just that level of energy and excitement that exists at Audible about the program is what’s helped make the program so successful.
I agree with everything Supriya said – that first cohort, there was a lot of interest and a desire to be educated on the program. Everyone at Audible feels deputized to try to make this kind of difference in the world. So when they see an exciting new opportunity or idea, something they hadn’t thought of before, they tend to jump on it.
With the second cohort especially, because now everyone has seen the results, and the success of the first program. There’s been a progression of the managers being interested in trying something new, to going, wait a minute, this is a huge, untapped source of talent that can help us achieve our goals, that can improve our team, that can help mentor the other team members. So the enthusiasm for the program has only grown.
I’ve had the great privilege to grab lunch with our returners, and to hear their stories. They’re on real product teams doing real work, and based on their feedback, are all pretty excited to be making contributions to Audible. Many feel that they’ve really had time to ramp up, and are happy for the support the program provides, especially in the early days. Overall, they’re very pleased with the program, and have a lot of ideas on how to make it even better, which is great.
If I may add to what Mike said, when we talk about passion and purpose, Mike, as an SVP, has not just had one lunch meeting with the 20 returners in our current cohort. He has had, and continues to have, hour-long lunch meetings with each of the returners. And that example just shows the purpose, the passion, and the commitment that one has to the program: truly getting to know every candidate, every person in our program, and really setting them up for success.
5. Supriya, why did you decide to partner with Path Forward, and what support did Path Forward provide during the Next Chapter program?
I’ll be honest, I spent over a month just doing my due diligence with different organizations in the country that offer support on creating a returnship program. And what struck me about Path Forward was the knowledge that they had about that pipeline of true caregivers.
Path Forward really knew its audience like no other organization we interacted with. The other thing that I found really different about Path Forward was that they did not just care about getting the talent hired in a program. They cared about the journey during the program. They cared about how that entire process of conversion to full-time employment happened. And they even supported the candidates beyond that. Some of our returners who are now full-time employees, are brand ambassadors and champions and coaches to future returners.
I think that is where the partnership with Path Forward was so unique. They brought a passion for returning caregivers that I did not see anywhere else. And it was so visible in every person on the Path Forward team, in the way they spoke about the program, the depth of their work, and their attention to detail.
Beyond the support to returners, what we found most helpful during the running of the program was the support they provided to managers and mentors, enabling them to change their mindset, lead with empathy, lead with more practical management experience, and even change our interview process. I think our partnership with Path Forward was very integral to bringing that change about, and helping us shape best practices.
Of course, like any organization, we ran into hurdles. And Path Forward was like the parent that tells us, you know what, it’s okay. Running into certain issues means you’re doing a good job, you’re doing the right thing, and you need to trust the process. It will manifest the way you have envisioned.
We do a lot with our Returners in the 16-18 weeks that they’re with us. But sometimes they want to know what’s happening in the world. They want to know what’s happening with other returners out there, and they want to hear from people who’ve been on the other side of the bridge who finished the full time offer and get that guidance. I think that’s where Path Forward has been extremely instrumental, in building up their confidence and helping them believe in themselves and in their abilities.
6. What attributes do you think returners can uniquely offer to Audible?
That mid-career talent is some of the hardest talent to find in the industry, in my experience. So returners are a pool of folks who have that experience, with transferable skills, that can help make your existing team better. And then ultimately you wind up with employees who have selected your company not only after doing due diligence from the outside, who’ve already spent 18 weeks on a team learning about the way things work, about how the organization works. So they come to the job truly ready to solve problems and contribute. Ultimately, it creates a team that’s more durable.
7. Has anything surprised you, from when the program was just a concept to when it got up and running?
I always knew this program was going to be a success. But I didn’t expect it to be a success this fast, to this magnitude. The program is working extremely well, the cohorts are growing, and the demand from managers to get access to returners through the program is through the roof. So the scope of its success surprised me.
While I was having lunch with one of our returners, and they gave feedback that stuck with me – they said, it’s great that the program provides support, and that you help people get back into the swing of working.. But what you need to highlight when recruiting returners who are considering your company is the ability to do real work on real teams, real fast. Because we’re able to contribute and start delivering for our customers almost immediately. And that’s what sets returnships apart from a training program or internship – you join a real team and have plenty of support, but also plenty to do. So that is something we will try to emphasize in our future recruiting.
I knew it was hard to find work after a career break, but I did not fathom how hard it was until I heard our returner’s stories. I did not realize that all of your past experience is deemed of no value if you have so much as a year of a career break, let alone a decade. Some of these candidates were struggling for months, or even years, to find a job that would respect their previous skill set and experience, and let them join, if not where they left off, at least near where they left off, rather than at the junior level. That really surprised me.
But on a positive note, in our program, what surprised me was when we initially hired returners, we hired them at a certain level. They were in the program for 18 weeks, and then based on their performance, they got a full time offer. When we made full time offers for almost all returners, we made them an offer one, or sometimes two levels higher than what they were initially hired for.
We’ve even hired returners as part-time directors at Audible. And that one or two level promotion in just 18 weeks really talks to the caliber that these candidates bring. But when I went back to the hiring managers and I asked them, when you first met this candidate in your first interview four months back, would you have offered them such a senior-level role? And unanimously, all of them said no. And that is the beauty and the power of a returnship program. These returners have the skill sets, but likely do not know how to articulate them in a new world. Our returners, on average, are coming back from a career break of over half a decade. Despite the hardships of coming back from a long break, of being in a pandemic, of navigating remote work, with just a little support, the right development and coaching, within just 18 weeks, magic can happen.
8. Has the work on the Next Chapter returnship program had any other impacts on your general hiring process?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a journey. We are continuing to work on it, and to improve. And the success of this program is now making us look at other initiatives as well. We’re looking at other spectrums of talent and building programs that enable us to focus on finding and hiring them. Because you do need customization to your traditional hiding process to be able to bring in a wide range of talent.
Other than that, it’s impacted how we value potential and the promise a person brings. All of that has definitely been part of the mindset in our recruitment process.
Audible’s hiring process is always evolving. We’re always trying to find new ways to make sure we’re bringing the best and most diverse set of talent and experiences to the team. And the returnship program has galvanized everyone around the idea that the recruiting process needs to be a little personalized. You’re definitely looking at folks through a lens when you’re putting them through a rigorous interview process with a number of long meetings. We use a lot of data to make sure that our recruitment process actually does bring people that can succeed in the company. But this program has made us realize that it’s not the only way to recruit.
But there are other people, with certain challenges that might preclude them from doing their best in that type of interview environment. So we’ve been thinking about other ways that we can bring nontraditional talent in, to get to know them, and have them get to know us. You have to really consider all the angles and sources of candidates, especially in a time when it’s so hard to find great talent these days.
9. What advice would you give to leaders at other organizations that aren’t currently running internship programs or are looking to start one?
Get started right away, because you are behind! There are people out there that could be advancing your goals, who are going to be great members of your team, but they’re having a hard time getting to you. So get help from a company like Path Forward. Get alignment and get internal advocates for the program, and then get started because like everything, it takes a couple of turns of the crank to get it right. So the sooner you get started, the better.
I think many times when such programs have started, so much of the focus is on the hiring process, which kind of overwhelms the entire process.I think my advice to any program manager would be that, yes, hiring is important. But it’s only part of the process. These returners are very talented people. They’re strong decision makers. And while you are observing their performance during a returnship, they are observing your culture, as well. So pay attention to what that experience looks like. Are you giving returners an opportunity to interact with people outside their immediate teams? Do they have a chance to meet the leadership and really hear in person what their growth strategy and vision of the organization is? Are you giving them a chance to interact with employee resource groups and hear from very diverse stakeholders within the organization?
Do they have mentors? Do they have coaching? Do they have the support they need? How are you pairing them up with their managers? Do they have real time projects that they’re working on, or do they feel like they’re making an impact at your organization? I think you need to on these aspects of the program, and of really giving returners a flavor of the organizational culture, of making their experience worthwhile, so that even if it doesn’t materialize into a full time offer, they leave the organization full of experience, of impact, of good memories of working there. That is how you get a winning program, and great talent that wants to stay with you even after the program is over.
10. What has been your biggest takeaway from this program?
Interacting with returnees and just hearing their stories. They have such powerful stories of resilience and perseverance. We’ve had a returner with a child with multiple learning disabilities, and a single mom of two whose parents were both critically ill. We currently have a returner who took a two-year break for an infertility journey, which is extremely stressful and time-consuming, who joined the program with a baby that was just a few months old. These are such powerful stories that inspire you in ways that put your own life into perspective.
I frequently reflect on the fact that there are so many talented folks out there who might face friction getting to you, but who would love to be at your organization, and you would love to have them there. So look at everything that’s introducing points of friction along your hiring process and then drive it out. There is tremendous opportunity in most companies’ processes and talent pipelines. And there’s also tremendous opportunity to make the hiring process better, to attract even more diverse talent into the organization. We all have a lot of work to do in improving our hiring processes, and we’re not finished yet.
11. What kind of support does Audible’s Next Chapter program provide to returners?
From the beginning, returners have a very customized onboarding program. We have a weekly themed learning session for returners throughout the 18 weeks. Week one, for instance, is about building confidence, where they hear from our Moms at Audible resource group. All returners also have mentors.
In our second cohort, we’ve introduced coaching sessions: we have an independent coach who is not part of the program, interact with returners in small groups, see how things are going, and gain feedback on how the program is going. We’re always working to improve based on that feedback from returners. We have a formal and a very different performance management process for them at the mid-point of their returnship, where we take a template with documented feedback that managers and mentors have given, and, depending on the feedback, have a conversation that enables them to change gears, if needed, for the remainder of the program. It’s a very formalized and a very structured, thoughtful process.
We introduce returners to a lot of panel discussions, where we give them a chance to hear from executive leaders across the organization. Finally, we provide very structured behavioral and technical learning sessions.
Our intention is to keep evolving the program. We have multiple check-in sessions with returners every month. And we keep changing as we learn what works best and what could be improved.
12. What has made you the most proud running this program?
Put simply, there are so few times in someone’s career where you get an opportunity to change the world. So when an opportunity comes up, you need to grab it. The returnship program is a chance to do something that will start a ripple that could change the complexion of the entire face of the workforce going forward. So what I’m most proud of is that I’m at a company like Audible that has given so much energy to this initiative, and that I was able to be a part of it.
I’m proud of being part of this journey, and being instrumental in creating hope and promise for future generations. Returnship programs give a promise to future generations, that when your time comes, it’s okay if you want to take a break, to spend a part of your life completely dedicated to those that are near and dear to you. And when you come back, the world will be there for you, the workforce will be there for you, and we will embrace you returning to your career where you left off. And that should, and could, be a norm. The Next Chapter program is helping write part of the script of that story of hope and promise.