What Can Leaders Do To Drive Employee Career Development?
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? That was the question a friend posted on her Facebook page several weeks ago. I wanted to be a paramedic, because I loved the television show Emergency! (redundant exclamation mark included in the title). Back then I was more concerned with my crush on one of the actors than on the concept of career development.
During one episode, I realized the adrenaline high of saving someone’s life wasn’t great enough to make me want to run into a burning building or deal with poisonous snakes. (Hey, I was only nine years old.) I eventually appreciated that my love of language could lead to a writing career, and although I’ve had a few detours along the way, I’m happiest and most fulfilled when I stay on this path.
The beginning of the year is a natural time of assessment and planning, but it’s always a good time to take stock of our jobs and careers and contemplate what we want to accomplish and who we want to become.
In other words, we’re constantly wondering what we want to do when we grow up, as long as we are brave enough to ask ourselves if we’re truly fulfilled. As people managers, you have to recognize that your employees are making these assessments all the time. It’s your job to provide guidance on the career development process with information, feedback, and continued motivation.
The changing face of career development
Career development has changed significantly in the last twenty years. It used to be, when a new employee was hired, there was a standard career path to follow. But as companies downsized and flattened, the traditional career ladder ceased to exist.
With downsizing, the long-term relationship between an employee and company disappeared. The idea of working at one company for a lifetime is now unthinkable, and as the stigma of frequent job switching has lessened, employees feel comfortable job hopping. A CareerBuilder survey noted that 45% of college grads will stay at a job two years or less, and that by age 35, a quarter of workers will have held five jobs or more.
Another factor affecting career development: with unemployment at a historic low and quit rates at a historic high, valued employees who are dissatisfied with their career development can easily leave a company and land in a new job with a 15% salary increase.
The manager’s stake in employee career development
The old adage is that employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. The reverse is also true, employees stay and thrive when their managers help them succeed. And, with lack of career development being one of the top reasons employees leave companies, if you want to improve employee retention, development, and motivation, intentionally investing in your employee’s development is not optional.
But given the changing landscape of career development, how do you help your employees identify or make progress in their path? It all starts with a conversation. Ideally, you’re having regular meetings with each employee—maybe check-ins on projects or periodic performance reviews.
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It’s a good bet that an entry level employee isn’t doing their dream job—but what would that be? What skills does the employee need to attain in order to be qualified for that dream job, and how does the current job add to those skills? Are there projects that your employee can work on that give them useful experience? Is there a mentor in another department that can provide sage advice? Are there volunteer or development opportunities outside of the company that would help strengthen an employee’s abilities?
The new career path
As a manager, help your employees to seek opportunities or advocate for them to learn and develop. Career paths are no longer static, so instead of focusing employees on attaining a specific role, help them grow their skills.
Emphasize continuous learning: We all know technology is changing fast and those changes impact every job. Employees need to keep gaining new skills to keep up. In a Udemy survey, 84% of U.S. workers believe there is a skills gap and at least 51% would quit a job that didn’t provide needed training. While employees need to take charge of their own learning, managers need to provide encouragement and access to training.
In addition to technological skills, soft skills are also increasingly needed. The ability to problem solve, be empathetic, and communicate is essential as companies encourage employees to collaborate and be creative. Developing other soft skills such as intellectual curiosity, grit, and adaptability give employees transferable skills that can be used in a variety of career fields.
Value the role of individual contributors: For years, the best way for an employee to move up in a company was to promote them to management. The employee had success in the previous position, why wouldn’t they have similar success as they took on more responsibility?
But the skills that might make an individual contributor great don’t always translate to the skills needed to manage people. Your top salesperson might be excellent because they are self-motivated and competitive. But that doesn’t mean they can motivate others, or establish a team environment.
Still, these employees have valuable skills and experience and want to see progression in their careers. Some organizations are addressing this with a career track for individual contributors, where they can grow with their areas of expertise without having to manage people.
Help employees see how they fit in the company: Particularly for entry-level employees, it may be difficult to see how their jobs tie into the company and its mission. As a manager, provide that perspective. Talk about the company goals, why they were chosen, why they are important, and how the team’s contributions make a difference. Share company news and explain the relevance. Talk with employees about opportunities for development in their department or in others. Help employees understand their value and envision their future with the company.
You can help your employees see that their work matters in a structured way by reflecting the “why” of their tasks. As your organization sets its vision for each year and the periodic objectives and key results (OKRs) that support it, each team and employee can create their own objectives. Everyone is then connected to the overarching goal. Use metrics to measure those objectives and results so managers and employees can track progress, and employees can build their repertoire of skills.
Career development is a joint effort. While you want your employees to drive it, you still need to provide the environment that doesn’t just encourage and support it, but also creates agreements around it. What’s more, you may need to help employees learn how to drive their development. It takes time and effort to collaborate on their trajectory and provide this guidance, but the investment in their skills makes them more valuable and more loyal—factors that ultimately benefit you both.
Pamela DeLoatch is a B2B technology writer specializing in creating marketing content for the HR industry. With a background as an HR generalist and specialist, she writes about the employee experience, engagement, diversity, HR leadership, culture and technology. Follow Pamela on Twitter @pameladel.