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Following a traditional career path is no longer a road to success. The reality is that navigating today’s ever-changing work landscape requires a far more proactive, choose-your-own-adventure approach. But companies can—and should—do far more to help provide guidance and opportunities to employees who are figuring out their professional lives.

While it was once relatively common for an employee to work at a single organization for 40 years, rising slowly up the corporate ladder, it’s now rare for workers to spend their entire professional lives at one company. In fact, according to a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, employees hold an average of 12 jobs in their lifetimes. And this trend will only continue. “Estimates today are that a young person could have 16-17 different jobs across five different industries,” says author and future of work strategist Heather McGowan.

Then there are the ripple effects of COVID-19 to consider. Thirty percent of college grads are now rethinking their industry of choice, including moving away from NGOs and fields like hospitality and tourism, according to a recent study. Meanwhile, another 30% are considering taking a gap year. And anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of current employees are switching gears to tackle entirely new roles and responsibilities as company needs and goals have suddenly shifted as a result of the pandemic.

One thing’s for sure: Resumes are going to look a whole lot different moving forward, with skips and hops becoming even more commonplace and widely accepted. Given our volatile working world (further fueled by advances in technology and automation), how can companies help employees create a personalized vision and direction for their future that’s not necessarily tied to a traditional upward trajectory? 

Transforming Managers Into Coaches

While frequent job jumping is becoming more of the norm, it’s not only the result of outside forces. Unfortunately, many individuals simply feel disconnected from their work, with 51% actively looking for a new job or watching job openings, according to Gallup’s State of the American Workforce report. Managers have the power to change this; after all, they account for a whopping 70% of variance in employee engagement scores. But moving the needle will require them to take time to focus on the unique strengths and interests of their reports.

As opposed to micromanaging tasks or dwelling on ways to fix individual shortcomings (so that everyone on the team checks the same success boxes), managers should have more regular, in-depth check-ins with employees to discuss their professional goals and challenges as well as  projects and positions that might interest them. And instead of formally evaluating, managers must build trust by acting more like coaches: asking open-ended questions, actively listening and guiding individuals toward solutions that play to their strengths. In this way, they’ll encourage individuals to take a more active role in their own development journey while simultaneously honing those workers’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The result? Happier, more engaged employees and greater internal mobility.

And it’s not just the employees who benefit from this adjusted approach. Research shows that organizations whose leaders successfully empower others through coaching are nearly four times more likely to make fast, good decisions and outperform their industry peers. But it will take more than just desire and a serious time investment to make these meaningful conversations and professional relationships possible—and effective.

AI-Powered Digital Coaching Tools

To identify an employee’s various capabilities and provide them with the right development opportunities, companies will greatly benefit from the use of AI-powered digital coaching tools. This smart technology can make recommendations for growth (like relevant training sessions, projects or open roles) based on skills courses that an employee has completed or shown interest in. As a result, that individual may stumble across a position or department they had never considered before but would be a great fit for their talents, keeping them engaged and invested in the company.

This nonlinear path may seem unusual, but today’s workers are motivated by professional growth opportunities and not necessarily a promotion or a bigger paycheck. According to research from Cornerstone, 89% of workers across generations said they would consider making a lateral career move with no financial incentive. Meanwhile, analyst Josh Bersin found that companies who effectively nurture their workforce’s desire to learn are at least 30% more likely to be market leaders over an extended period of time.

By constantly evaluating the skill sets of employees and providing them with continuous opportunities to learn (an approach known as new skilling), companies can not only develop industry-leading talent but also an exceptionally adaptable workforce. But it’s just as important for employees to hone their soft skills as critical as their technical skills. Luckily, XR specialists like Talespin are building immersive learning programs that coach users how to effectively respond in professional scenarios that require empathy, problem-solving and purposeful inquiry, among other leadership skills.

“We're seeing retention of core concepts go up by over 200%, and they typically stick for two to three times as long,” says Talespin CEO Kyle Jackson. “People start making different connections than they would have if they had been in e-learning or video- or classroom-based learning.”

Paired with more constructive, open-ended conversations with managers, these trail-blazing, AI-driven technologies will help to upskill employees and propel them into challenging, satisfying careers. No roads required.