Career Development Today: The Long and Winding Road
Today’s changing career landscape promises endless possibilities. At the same time, as organizational priorities constantly shift, it features unexpected twists and turns while offering few road markers. As a result, your employees may suffer from what Paul Smith describes as a new strain of “blind ambition.”
Smith, who is Director of Training and Development for the Consumer Health Care Products division of a global pharmaceutical firm, explains, “We found that employees understood they needed to take charge of their careers. Some, at our encouragement, took the initiative and tried to figure out the answers to ‘How do I do this?’ ‘Who do I talk to?’ ‘What are the unwritten rules?’ Unfortunately, they didn’t receive a lot of help from us, and they often got it wrong.”
Getting it wrong includes mismatched skills or interests, misery, failure, or a dead-end role that doesn’t deliver what the organization needs most. Yet no one is suggesting a return to a more traditional, linear notion of careers. Not organizations, which need to realign and redeploy talent nimbly in response to changing market conditions. Not employees, who come to work each day with new expectations and the desire to make the most of their unique skills.
Both sides crave elements of the old system. The same talent who may not want to be “managed” do look for career opportunities and a sense of what lies beyond the next hill. The same organizations who can’t promise lifetime employment require a return on their investment in that talent, making sure that the right skills are in the right place, focused on the right priorities, at the right time.
Enter “career development” — redefined.
Unfortunately, too many career development initiatives either create a free-agent mentality that doesn’t support the organization’s priorities or flip responsibility over to individual employees without the appropriate support from the organization. Neither works. In fact, HR managers surveyed for The Society for Human Resource Management’s 2006 Talent Management Report identified “creating policies that encourage career growth and development opportunities” as being among the top four areas of improvement needed in their organization’s talent management systems.
Effective career development programs are designed to provide employees with the information, tools, and development they need to move into roles the organization needs them to play. The recommendations that follow reflect the best practices of two organizations that are successfully addressing the needs of both the organization and the workforce.
Provide a process, not a path.
Today’s unpredictable business climate dictates the demise of the definitive “next step” on the career ladder. As Allen & Overy, a law firm with 26 offices in 19 countries, experienced significant shifts in its business, new opportunities for associates were created. The challenge was, according to Julian Tutty, Head of Performance, Learning, and Development, “With new opportunities came uncertainty. The paths taken by senior partners no longer apply.” In response, the firm is rolling out a comprehensive career management program for associates 3 to 4 years into their tenure to help them identify and develop for the career moves most appropriate for their talents and goals as well as the firm’s priorities.
Smith says his division experienced similar business shifts, which resulted in the creation of new opportunities. Yet employees were stymied without a road map. He explains, “We wanted to provide a process to help individuals identify their interests, determine their strengths and development areas, and make better decisions about their options.”
Provide useful information.
Employees need more than permission to seek lateral moves or a process for managing their career. The more information your organization can provide about options available to employees, the better. Allen & Overy detailed new positions and laid out alternative paths to becoming a partner. The firm is also working on a competency framework to help associates better identify the skills they need to develop into desired roles.
Competency definitions also figured prominently in the approach of Smith’s organization. Position “brochures” were created that described the various levels of responsibility, and examples of possible development paths were included. He explains, “We asked high performers ‘What was your path?’ and found that they often held a series of jobs but did not follow the same path. So we included these examples to emphasize that there is no one route. We wanted to send the message that thoughtful ‘bouncing’ is not only okay; there is evidence that the high performers have moved the most.”
Managers should not drive career development initiatives, but they can derail them if they’re not part of the process. Smith made sure his division’s career management implementation featured a top-down rollout to create manager buy-in. Half-day workshops, focused on coaching fundamentals such as establishing trust, were also offered to ensure that managers were better equipped to coach employees in their development. Tutty has addressed skepticism at Allen & Overy directly with a communications strategy and briefings. After all, he explains, “The senior partners never had this type of support themselves, and helping others find their own answers is very different from their day jobs.”
Provide accountability and incentives.
Both firms implemented career development initiatives in the context of performance management and bonus structures. By doing so, they underscored the organization’s commitment to employees and ensured that employees’ career moves benefited the organization. Smith notes an additional payoff: After employees completed the initial phase of the career management process, the Talent Management Meetings (in which managers discussed skill sets and the potential of employees) were more productive and accurate.
Take a multifaceted approach.
As with any strategic workforce initiative, success is unlikely to come from one tool or one day of training, as these initiatives illustrate. Tutty is in the process of supplementing the steps taken so far with a Coaching Center to provide one-on-one career guidance. Smith reports plans to revisit the on-boarding process to reflect the competency and career management tools implemented so far.
Reap the rewards of retention and competitive advantage.
Both organizations have enjoyed anecdotal reports of success and increased alignment. They expect increased retention of top talent to follow. According to Smith, “Not enough companies invest in career development. Those that do will achieve competitive advantage. We want to attract top talent by showing that this is a good place to work. We also want to retain top talent — by keeping them pursuing what they’re interested in doing and becoming better at it.”
In the past, choosing a career was like buying a one-way train ticket from Rome to Copenhagen on a local train that made all the stops along the way….Today choosing a career is more like buying a lifelong Eurailpass, with no set final destination, no fixed travel agenda, and no timetable.”
—Edward E. Lawler III & James O’Toole, The New American Workplace