Why We Still Can’t Get Career Development Right

Work Institute’s 2019 Retention Report reprises a familiar refrain:

“Career development continues to be the leading cause of employee turnover in the US.”

Yet again, organizations, talent professionals and leaders have to face the hard data and hard reality that we’ve still not cracked the code on what matters most to employees: career opportunities. It’s not for lack of effort. Companies are investing extraordinary resources in skills training, portals, online systems and processes designed to make this happen. And it all falls short. Here’s why.

Dated Definitions

We continue to hold tightly to and perpetuate the illusion that career development operates via the old career ladder, which (in days gone by) allowed for the regular, progressive and consistent movement upward toward increasingly desirable positions. Unfortunately, the ladder no longer exists. It’s been replaced by any number of alternatives that are more organic, flexible and a lot less linear — webs, jungle gyms and the climbing wall. We have to update our definitions and pictures, because as long as we confuse promotions with career opportunities, satisfaction and engagement will suffer.

Problematic Probes

Beginning at a young age, children are asked by well-meaning adults, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” So, from youth, we are conditioned to think in terms of specific roles, titles and jobs. Then, in the workplace, managers inadvertently reinforce this thinking.

Despite organizational realities that limit movement and promotions, managers still routinely ask, “Where do you see yourself in two years?” The alternative to focusing on what people want to “be” is helping them reframe their objectives around what they want to “do” with questions like:

  • What kinds of work would you like to be doing?
  • What do you wish to accomplish and contribute?
  • What kinds of problems would you like to be solving?
  • What in your current role do you love and would like to do more of?
  • Reframing the conversation can reframe expectations. These questions open up a world of possibilities that allow leaders to offer career opportunities and, in the process, drive the satisfaction and engagement that serves the individual and the business.

    Lateral Limitations

    Silo-based organizations struggle with the one area of career movement that’s available despite leaner hierarchical structures and the delaying of the management ranks. Lateral transfers are a natural vehicle for allowing employees to continue to learn, grow and contribute in new ways. Seeing the organization, customers, and work through a different lens offers powerful development that can be energizing and instructive. But, too frequently, managers report that they don’t know about opportunities outside of their departments.

    Stymied Stretch Assignments

    When promotions or moves aren’t available, career opportunities are still possible through assignments, projects and other activities that expand capacity and offer the chance to engage in different, interesting experiences. But, given how time- and priority-stretched most organizations and individuals are, it’s frequently impossible to take on such challenges without “real work” suffering.

    “Organizations must come to terms with the reality that development is real work.”

    Leaders must master a new competency: the ability to identify and package essential tasks and projects as career opportunities. They must then offer the support and coaching to ensure both individual learning and appropriate business results.

    Transparency Trap

    When employees (and their managers) can’t explain why one person is promoted while another is not, it fuels frustration, speculation, and resentment. Under these circumstances, opportunities seem scarce and unattainable and putting forth continued effort can feel futile. And when this happens, satisfaction and engagement suffer.

    Money Matters

    The motivation for promotions and moving up doesn’t revolve exclusively around development, or even titles, stature and responsibility (all of which are significant). It’s also about compensation. Until we find ways to reward learning, the development of new competencies, and expanded in-role contributions, employees will naturally associate career opportunities with income-enhancing promotions — and satisfaction and engagement will continue to suffer.

    Satisfaction with career development has been a key driver of engagement for years and will likely continue to be. As a result, it’s time for leaders and organizations to finally confront the challenging realities and systemic limitations, and figure out how to offer meaningful career opportunities to employees.


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