Organizational Mindset Towards Career Development

With the speed of change sweeping through business environments, organizations increasingly need to adopt a more flexible mindset that empowers employees for career self-management. If accelerating skill development, and building the talent pipeline is important…then this new mindset is critical.
Career development is one of the top recruitment, engagement and retention factor (Blessing White, 2013). In our recruitment efforts, the typical pitch is “join us, because we will realize your potential”. But is there real commitment behind this statement?
The mindset of control and efficiency gets in the way that is counter-productive to the employees and organization in the longer run. I heard these comments from managers:

  • “We don’t want employees to reflect too much about their careers, in case they want to leave.”
  • “Let sleeping dogs lie, don’t put thoughts about career development in their head.”
  • “Why open a can of worms? What if everyone wants a different role after they have thought about their career?”
  • “We can’t have the whole organization wanting to change roles!”
  • “We need to check the career aspirations of the people to see if they have got it right.”

These comments reflect:comments_reflect

  • The organization’s lack of faith that people will think of leaving if they reflect on their careers;
  • An assumption that people don’t already think of career development;
  • A lack of trust and confidence that we will be able to find viable win-win options for the staff and organization;
  • An assumption that we know what’s best for their career development; and
  • Perhaps an anxiety to keep the status quo because it’s predictable and controllable.

These assumptions are potentially counter-productive because they are based on the industrial model of organizing work, where work is predictable and easily managed by breaking it down to small parts. However, with the twin forces of globalization and technology, the frequency, nature and scale of change has increased tremendously. This forces organizations to be agile and adapt quickly. New skills and know-how are constantly emerging. The top 10 jobs in demand now did not even exist in 2004.

Rather than operate based on the same assumptions from the industrial age, perhaps it is worthwhile to examine our assumption, and consider the organization’s stand on career development beyond our recruitment pitch.

 Organization Mindsets Towards Career Development

Let’s examine the different mindsets of organizations towards career development. For simplicity, these are present as two polarities – traditional mindset vs. flexible mindset.

Traditional Mindset

  • Career map enshrined on paper: Career development is a clear path we can foretell and enshrine on paper.
  • Structured Career Development: With our competencies mapped to jobs and these jobs organized in different career paths, we know in 3 years time where you can go and in 5 years time what position you will be in.
  • Organization owns the careers: Organization manages careers and tells people where and when to be posted based on organization needs and the career paths in the organization.
  • Career development is driven from systems and processes: Career moves are captured in the forms or system.
  • Mindset towards managers: Our managers do not have the mindset to release people for new roles.
  • Perennial fear: What if we develop people and they leave?
  • Organization as a parent: We need to make sure that your career development proposition makes sense to the organization.
  • Focus on the job: Nurture a person to do this job well.

Flexible Mindset

  • Career map created along the way: Career development evolves and adapts according to life circumstances and external changes.
  • Organic Career Development: We need to know the competencies required for jobs, but the world is changing too quickly for career paths to remain static. Rather than try to control and predict, we trust ourselves and our people to make the best decision at this point, re-evaluate and navigate again.
  • Employees own their careers: They take ownership of their careers and organization’s role is to support career development by educating employees so they get clear of their career development strategy and drive it themselves.
  • Career development is driven more organically and based on meaningful conversations: CD conversations are alive in the conversations between managers and employees.
  • Mindset towards managers: Our managers need support so that they can support the career development of their staff.
  • Provocative thought: What if we don’t develop people and they stay?
  • Organization as a partner: We learn in every station and this learning will help you and the organization in the future.
  • Focus on the organization: Nurture a person for the organization.

minde_set_oneThese two organizational mindsets towards career development serve different contexts. The Traditional Mindset is suitable when there are minimal changes in the operating environment that compels work to be done differently. The career ladder and graduating competencies remain stable and apt. In addition, there could be operational constrains or a pre-determined set of experiences required for bigger subsequent roles that do not give people an option to choose a posting. This is a Fixed Environment.
On the other hand, the Flexible Mindset works better for contexts where the world is changing faster than we can plan and control for that organic evolution becomes more efficient. In addition, HR is typically too thinly resourced to do the heavy lifting in planning every individual’s postings. This is an Evolving Environment. Here is an example of the Flexible Mindset from Bloomberg.

Career Development in a Fortune 500 company in the Media Industry

Being an open and transparent company, employees are expected to drive their own careers. However, a few years ago, some high quality talent left the company. Although it was not a big number, it was still a loss as they were high quality talents. This triggered the President’s question – Why?
Study into the exit interviews by a task force found a lack of clarity in career direction and fear in applying for other jobs. There was a perception that managers would stop their application or view them unfavourably. As there was no clear career ladder, employees did not know of opportunities elsewhere. This also contributed to some disengagement. With these findings, Career development (CD) became a priority in the company and a team of 5 CD specialists was appointed to spearhead CD globally.


The Career Development Strategy and Philosophy includes:

  • Employees own their career and are encouraged to think about their career development strategy
  • The organization’s role is to support by making career development opportunities known and transparent across the company
  • Employees are encouraged to apply for internal positions and the organization commits to filling positions from within first
  • Employees need to stay in role for at least 18 months and focus on learning and mastering their current role
  • Career development happens in all directions, not just upward progression

The Career Development program is multi-faceted:
Employees have access to resources, such as tools to understand one’s career aspirations and development areas as well as education sessions to understand different parts of the business. Employees also have access to career advisors. These career advisory roles are voluntary and on top of their current jobs. They give employees career advice or help them understand a different job or market.

Managers have all undergone compulsory career coaching training to equip them with skills for effective career conversations. Managers who lose a staff in the internal application process have some scope to negotiate a viable timeframe for transition. Recruitment support is given to these managers and they are also recognized as people developers.

Organizationally, there are systems to support career development too. For example, all job postings globally are available on one platform, complete with search functions and alert features. The application process is easy and confidential. Employees do not need to tell their managers until they are seriously considered.

The HR department is also careful to manage expectations, e.g., entry level jobs are not likely to justify relocation costs. CD also organizes panel discussions that help people learn about different parts of the business and career options at the same time.

After a few years of the career development program, there is greater appreciation from the business on CD services. There has been increase in internal applicants and of vacancies filled by internal hires. Engagement scores have also improved.

Finding the Sweet Spot
We are not suggesting that this above model is suitable for all organizations, since the operating context could be different. However, the crux of career development is finding an alignment between individual values and aspirations, and requirements and possible constrains of the organization. This is the sweet spot, which then supports the engagement and retention of your people.

To help us get to the sweet spot, here are some questions to consider your organization’s stand towards career development:

1. At the current moment, which mindset does your organization tend to operate from?
2. What kind of environment does your organization operate in? Rapidly changing or stable and unchanging?
3. What shift in mindset towards career development is appropriate, so that we develop our workforce for the future?
4. Based on the table above, craft your organization’s position on career development. Look through the table above and explore your organization’s stand on these dimensions.

Discuss these questions as a team. Here’s a challenge to organizations – Do not seek refuge in control, the world is changing faster than we can control. Trust your people to make good decisions for themselves and the organization. The challenge to managers is to decide what you want your people to say about you as their manager. Do not be afraid of opening a can. It could also be a can of chocolates and even if you need to manage the worms, you can acquire the skills to do that.

Written by:
Wendy Tan
Flame Centre

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