Employers and employees targeting career engagement often believe that career development is a 50/50 responsibility, but this is a mistake that costs employees opportunities and employers their best talent.
In reality, career development is a 100/100 accountability. When employer and employee both fill their vital roles in three areas, dramatic improvements are seen in motivation, productivity, career growth, and the employer’s reputation as a great place to work.
Career development is all about understanding and connecting what drives both the organization and the employee, and it involves activating three distinct stages: cultivating awareness, managing skill development and performance, and working a plan.
Stage 1: Cultivating Awareness
It is your job to know why you work beyond the paycheck — what you love to do, what you are good at, how you work best, what you want to learn, and what difference you want to make. The more you can clarify and share these things, within both your organization and your network, the greater chance you have of finding the right match in a role or development opportunity.
This sounds simple, but it requires some dedicated effort and analysis. For the self-guided, a great place to start is reflecting on the most motivating experiences in your career, education, and/or volunteer activities to date. Identify themes that explain why these moments make that list. What do these motivating experiences have in common? Were you making order out of chaos? Connecting people to resources? Making something better?
Books are a good resource for additional prompts, including Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath and Gallup, What Color Is Your Parachute? 2019 by Richard N. Bolles, and The Pathfinder by Nicholas Lore. For those who have an easier time reflecting with the help of others, finding a strong career coach can be a good option.
Encourage managers to make it possible for employees to discuss their goals and motivators openly. Consider training managers in holding effective career conversations to make the process easier. As managers become aware of their employees’ drivers, they can provide assignments, offer learning opportunities, or shift responsibilities to align employees’ roles with their motivators, thereby increasing engagement and getting more accomplished.
At the enterprise level, mandated yearly development conversations can allow employees to hold discussions they might otherwise worry about initiating. These discussions have power and should focus on leveraging employee strengths, not just mitigating weaknesses. Regular performance conversations that go beyond reviewing high-potential employees can widen awareness of all the talent available for the organization to access. In fact, organizations often have an easier time recruiting future executives than they do key contributors in particular disciplines, so they should cultivate awareness of talent they most need to retain and provide opportunities to keep these employees engaged.
Stage 2: Managing Skill Development and Performance
Performing well is what gets you noticed for future advancement. It is critical to seek feedback, both on how well you have achieved your goals and on how you are regarded by others. It is often difficult for managers to level with you about your reputation, so asking for both positives and areas you might need to address in this regard can give them permission to be more open.
You also want to stay ahead of what the organization will need in the future, so key questions to ask both your manager and the leaders in your field are: “What is likely to change in this role/field?” and “What would make me even more valuable in 2-3 years if I could develop it now?”
It is your responsibility to know how your business is evolving and to help employees develop the skills to evolve along with it. Managers owe it to employees to check in regularly, provide frequent feedback on their strengths, and be open and clear about what needs improvement. Managers should also connect employees with training and inform them on how to stay marketable.
Stage 3: Working a Plan
For Both Employees and Organizations:
The more specific your career development plan, the more likely it is to be executed. An employee’s plan may involve things they choose not to share with their boss — for example, a three-year plan to move into a different industry. The part the employee does share should be based on the outcomes they want to achieve in their current role, their role as it evolves, and their longer-term career goals.
Outcomes are what an employee wants to be able to do, not how they will get there. For example, “Be able to produce pivot tables and create simple spreadsheet formulas” is an outcome; “Take a course in Excel” is not. Outcomes should include clear timelines and metrics.
Organizations and managers must help actualize employee plans that are mutually beneficial. This can be done through stretch assignments, formal/informal mentoring and opportunities to mentor others, introductions to internal connections, clear access to anticipated openings, funding for training, or even internal talent exchanges between groups. The employee needs to drive the plan, since no one will care more about the result than they will.
Ultimately, if both employees and organizations own career development, the partnership can produce energized people, a pipeline of eager talent, and the business results that can sustain both going forward.