Career Development Becomes A “Given”

by Beverly Kaye

If you’re reading this article, chances are you are an HR, OD, or Learning & Development professional (HRP for short) under increasing pressure to deliver strategic goods that are backed up with reliable data. It’s hardly news that the role of HRP’s within the business environment has changed in the last three decades. In the past, HR performed the administrative function of an organization such as handling employee relations, benefits, recruiting, interviewing and hiring new staff in accordance with the policies handed down from top management. Today’s HRP’s handle these tasks, and, increasingly, they consult with top executives regarding strategic planning. HR is expected to be a strategic partner with the C-Suite executives for defining and executing the business’s short- and long-term objectives. They have moved from being a behind-the-scenes staff to leading the company’s organizational capability goals. HRPs must know how to be of value to the company as decision makers and influencers. There is no greater time for HRP’s to step up to this challenge than now, and in particular, to the necessity of Career Development.

If it’s been said once, it’s been said it a thousand times: Your people are your greatest asset, and you need to develop them with as much care as you do your systems and products.

Yet, career development is often on the short list by senior executives preoccupied with deadlines and budgets.  Sadly, it’s doesn’t get much more focus from the rank and file. Not quality focus. Not the kind of purposeful effort that’s beneficial, effective and prompts action to move the individual closer toward their end goal…whatever that may be.

Simply put, if you’re not re-recruiting your top talent and talking with your people about their careers, you can bet somebody else probably is. Even in a down economy, your top performers are marketable to the outside. They are poised to be prime targets for headhunters when the economy recovers — and there will be plenty of organizations ready and willing to entice them away when the time is right.

Smart organizations want to attract, motivate, and retain the most qualified employees and match them to jobs for which they are best suited. HRP’s must provide this connection.

Increasingly, research substantiates that career development offers a way of enhancing skills, boosting productivity, quality of work, and building worker loyalty. Cultivating skills not only increases individual and organizational performance, it also shapes business results. This is why organizations must recognize that developing the skills and knowledge of its workforce is a business imperative that gives them a competitive edge in recruiting and retaining high quality employees that leads to business success.

Regrettably, many organizations rely on the annual performance review to discuss employee career goals and they could well be headed for trouble.  Not so long ago, the annual performance review served double-duty as a career development discussion. Performance and career development were linked:  if employees’ performed well, their careers grew through a series of promotions and salary increases.

This model no longer works. Employees today are looking for more than simply an assessment of their work.  Yes, you want to maximize their performance, but they are more interested in maximizing their careers – and these goals are not always one and the same.

Organizations are responding to the wake-up call of constant and demanding economic conditions that are forcing them to reevaluate their human capital investments. Likewise, employees are being forced to take stock and redefine their job and career satisfaction in light of the new world of work. Years of reorganizing, restructuring, and rightsizing have caused people to take a more active role in managing their work futures.  Managers, individual contributors and support staff face career decisions on a daily basis: Should I stay or should I go?

Progressive organizations embrace this inertia and have developed strategies to encourage employees to take responsibility for developing their own careers. These companies believe that their competitive advantage depends on their ability to create a development culture which aligns individual talents to organizational goals. Not only do these organizations know how to do it, they also know why they must do it.

What Is Career Development Anyway?

“The total constellation of psychological, sociological, educational, physical, economic, and chance factors that combine to influence the nature and significance of work in the total lifespan of any given individual”

(National Career Development Association Web site, http://www.ncda.org/pdf/Policy.pdf).

…..y-a-w-n.   Reading this theoretic definition leaves me uninterested and Career Development is my life work!  Let’s make this more real.

Career development doesn’t need to be complicated or over processed – it just needs to pack a 1-2-3 punch to help employees assess:

1) Where they are now in their career

2) Where they want to go

3) What it will take for them to get there

It’s that simple, and quite honestly, that hard, but it doesn’t need to be over designed.  Too often, well-intentioned HRP’s set up task forces and committees to tackle Career Development. They invest countless hours, weeks and months to design an overwhelming number of processes, career maps and ladders only to discover the managers require a flow chart to make sense of it all and the masses have lost interest and faith while waiting for this elaborate system to unfold. Unfortunately by the time it’s ready to roll out, the solutions are so difficult to grasp or worse yet, have little impact.  So a new task force gets formed, and, well, you know the rest.

Organization excellence entails sustaining a high performing, competitive workforce who is ready to execute to its global customer base. At the same time, it requires a culture that offers an opportunity to contribute to the company’s success for as long as possible. When there is no longer a job/career fit, the “contract” now is clear—the employee is responsible for pursuing other options.

For these organizations, career development is not a program, but a belief system that integrates other vital HR systems, maximizing the value of on-the-job experience with development opportunities.

It’s a simple equation:

Taking on challenging job assignments + education + experience = career development.

It is a business decision that fully involves its people by getting input from them on their career interests and expectations.  This, ideally, places them in positions that maximize their potential and also advances the success of the business.  A win/win all around.

The Business Need

Like every other element of running an organization, learning and development programs should be closely aligned with business goals and strategies. Traditional opportunities for promotion, advancement, and upward mobility are severely limited. With increased competition and technological advancements our business environment is continually changing. To be successful in today’s business world, all employees, whether they are technical, administrative, or managerial need to improve their skills, Career Development enables an organization to tap the wealth of in-house talent by matching the skills, experience, and aspirations of individual employees to the existing and future needs of the organization. HRP’s can help the organization to get this right.

Getting it right means doing things differently in different places.  Ravin Jesuthasan from Human Resources IQ speaks of “Optimization” which advocates redirecting investments away from areas with low impact to areas of higher value.  One example Jesuthasan cites is a hospital where HR needed to rethink its egalitarian view of its talent. Rethinking led to a very different view of the high employee turnover at the food service unit. A closer look at the root causes revealed that the food service segment provided entry into the job market for low-skilled workers and represented a feeder pool for other low-skilled jobs in the hospital. Instead of attempting to reduce turnover with pay raises, HR strategized with senior management to conclude that mentoring those workers to develop other skills for future positions would be a more optimal investment. With training, these workers could move out of food service to higher-level jobs in the hospital, turning them into valuable long-term employees. Food-service turnover that fed the pipeline for other hospital positions was worth the costs when HR put forth a strategic career development proposal.  This is a great example of understanding the logic of the business investment.

Three Stakeholders

Career development must be viewed as a shared responsibility between the employee, the manager, and the organization. Each stakeholder plays a specific and important role and assumes clear responsibilities.

The employee owns the process.  He or she must become the designated driver of their career and bring the spark to the conversation with others inside and outside the organization. Development demands time to consider the capabilities, goals and actions needed to progress. It is up to the individual to find the time to do this work.

The manager has a role too.  Not the role of 20 years ago when they tapped an employee on the shoulder to let them know when they were ready for a promotion. Manager’s count, and they have a specific role, but they don’t hold all the cards.  The manager’s job is to be the employee’s career advocate and lend support through coaching, providing perspective and holding career conversations. Frequent discussions with employees about what they do best and what they want to do should be routine and supportive, not a reluctant part of the manager’s responsibilities. Ongoing dialogue has become today’s ‘necessity’ to enhance productivity and the partnership around career development. These conversations deliver a return on investment for the employee as well as for the organization.

The organization and HR leaders need to recognize that development relies on many other HR processes like performance management, on-boarding, competency identification, job posting, learning and development, succession planning and strategy. It is up to the leaders to take advantage of these processes and put them to work in support of career choices. Organizations that embrace development will see to it that managers are skilled to feel comfortable in the conversation, and that employees are skilled to take responsibility for their careers. When employees see that their employer has a plan and that the employer is willing to invest in their growth and development, they are more likely to become and remain loyal to the company.

Building a career development framework that has clear steps and one that links other talent management activities to those steps can be a competitive advantage for an organization. Companies win when they recognize that an investment in developing people is an investment in the future of the organization.  Building this framework has shifted from being a ‘nicety’ in the past to a ‘necessity’ for the future.

When your top performers entertain job offers from other companies, they’re often fraught with anxiety and uncertainty about the decision. They need a supportive process to help them decide the best future course.  But all too often, while the other company is wooing them with future possibilities — money, advancement, challenge — their own company remains silent. It’s this uncertainty about the future that often drives people away. Sometimes they just need a good reason to stay, but without a supportive organizational climate that frequently discusses career issues, they’re not likely to find one.

In summary, career development is extremely important today. To help protect human assets, organizations must provide the resources and tools employees need to manage their careers, to align individual aspirations of career success with strategic business goals and objectives.  It’s not just a “nice” thing to do — it’s a business necessity.

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