Moving up isn’t the only way to achieve successful career development.
Engagement surveys reveal, again and again, that individuals join organizations to pursue career possibilities and they leave organizations if those opportunities don’t materialize. In fact, a recent Gallup study reported that the majority of millennials—projected to be 75 percent of the workforce by 2025—say that professional growth and continued development is very important in their decision to join an organization or take on a new role.
Recruiters who describe an organization as having a development culture need to understand what it means to follow through on that promise. Company culture must meet employee expectations and desires for learning and growing. When the reality doesn’t match the promise, a coveted new hire can easily disengage or become a quick quit.
It’s no secret that yesterday’s career ladders have faded or lost rungs along the way to today’s flatter organizational structures. Goals defined only by moves up the hierarchy and recognition systems centered primarily on celebrating promotions are setting the stage for frustration, disappointment, disengagement, and potentially loss of talent. The very definitions of growth and career development need to be broadened to encompass the full scope of growth options that exist in the world of work today.
So, what’s the answer?
Organizations are striving to stay ahead of the competition and on the cutting-edge of serving customers. Recruiters and HR professionals need to see return on the time, money, and energy invested in attracting talent. Managers are focused on building and engaging a team of valued players who are ready, willing, and able to deliver results. Individuals are developing current and future capabilities to realize their career aspirations. Continuous growth opportunities will meet the needs of all entities.
Organizations that meet the challenge of providing continued professional growth in spite of fewer promotional opportunities will attract and retain talent. Managers who recognize, embrace, and encourage nontraditional career paths will build reputations as development-minded leaders and establish trusting relationships with their teams. And employees whose growth needs are met will see a future within the organization and remain engaged and committed to the work.
A good place to start achieving this is recognition.
1. Recognize the issue—and the opportunity. Recognition of the issue and more importantly, the opportunity that lies within the issue, unlocks a wealth of opportunities for individuals and potential for the organization. Many traditional career paths don’t exist anymore, but in many cases, fulfilling alternatives have replaced them. Candid conversations with candidates, new hires, and tenured employees about opportunities to grow professionally create solid partnerships and send the message that growth is still there—it just may be packaged differently.
Nontraditional options can bridge functional groups and uncover potential paths by triggering interest in professional passions that employees may not be aware are possible. For example:
- IT professionals can have transferable skills for product design and marketing roles;
- instructors see line management assignments that draw on their expertise in the field of learning while affording the chance to stretch into new areas; and
- a sales leader can excel as a direct customer contact manager.
The key, however, is ensuring transparency regarding what continued growth looks like within the organization. For many, the mental image of growth is still a step up a ladder. While the reality may be very different, it is no less valuable toward the ultimate goal of building a personally meaningful career for individuals while simultaneously building future capability for the organization.
2. Recognize the options. When multiple options for learning and developing are recognized and consistently communicated across an organization, a growth culture is formed. There are six types of experiences that, when mixed and matched within a career pattern, create a kaleidoscope of development opportunities. They include:
- Enrichment: growing in place. Not all workers want to move from one role to another, but growth within current roles can and should happen. Through enrichment and learning programs, individuals feed their passion about the work, stretch to build new capabilities, and grow professionally. Enrichment builds resilience and fosters engagement.
- Exploratory: testing the water. So much can be learned from simply trying on a role to see if it fits. Exploratory experiences can identify future roles that are ideal as well as eliminate others from consideration. They can also provide a road map of the behaviors and skills needed to be considered for a future role. Whether the employee steps into a temporary assignment or simply conducts a series of informational interviews, exploratory experiences can uncover details that contribute to informed decisions and better choices for the future.
- Lateral: moving sideways. A sideways experience is an opportunity to leverage transferable skills acquired at the same or similar level while learning a new aspect of the business. In many organizations, movement among teams is more fluid and frequent than in the past and offers the opportunity to grow. Lateral experiences can build breadth of expertise, which senior leaders value. Employees who get hands-on experience in multiple areas learn functional interdependencies and gain a deeper understanding of how the organization works.
- Realignment: stepping back. Too often labeled as a negative, stepping back can at times be the perfect choice. When a talented individual voluntarily realigns by stepping back and continues to contribute to the success of the organization, the employee and the organization win. Realignment experiences are often valuable when changing disciplines or fields. Whether changing disciplines or simply adjusting the work-life balance scale, taking on a role of less scope or responsibility could lead to greater engagement and satisfaction.
- Vertical: moving on up. Promotional experiences still exist in organizations. It is critical that individuals choosing to pursue steps up clearly understand what to expect and examine the downsides as well as the upsides of the new role. Promotions can be enticing and they can also be rewarding. The key is in making sure those rewards—visibility, influence, compensation, and the like—are in sync with any accompanying trade-offs—longer hours, increased pressure, greater risks, and so on. When the time is right and the role checks all the boxes, then up is the answer.
- Departure: leaving the nest. Often, there comes a time in most careers when stepping out the door is the next best option. If a particular competency or skill set can’t be acquired, or the environment or culture is not the right fit, then leaving might be best for the employee and the organization. The key here is to ensure that there is always an opportunity to return in the future. For many individuals, the chance to step out—even for a short period of time—and gain another perspective or experience is an opportunity that shouldn’t be ignored. Some of those individuals may decide to return at some point, bringing with them new skills.
3. Recognize growth and celebrate it! Ensuring that employees are encouraged to stretch and learn, are coached when redirection is needed, and are celebrated when milestones are mastered, builds a sought-after development culture. When employees’ efforts to grow in traditional or nontraditional ways are acknowledged, a clear message is sent that the leader involved, as well as the organization they are a part of values and recognizes that growth. Employees want challenges in their work, opportunities to learn new things, greater employability, and leaders who value their contributions and care about their futures. These are all possible by expanding the definition of career growth.
Beverly Kaye is the founder of Career Systems International (now doing business as Talent Dimensions) and the author of multiple books on career development and engagement. Lindy Williams is a consultant with Talent Dimensions and the co-author of “Up Is Not the Only Way: Rethinking Career Mobility” along with Kaye and Lynn Cowart.