Career Growth is more than just “up”

Crystal Kadakia

Organization Development Consultant, Author

People love to think of journeys as a straight line, as a neat path from point A to point B. It’s no different in the workplace. The ideal growth path is to climb steadily, one rung after other, up the career ladder. Start at the bottom, put in your time, and work your way up. That’s the way it works, right? Not so fast. Talk to the nearest leader – did they have a straight shot career path? Not likely. 93% of young professionals say they left their last employee to change job roles entirely. They didn’t leave to go up…they swerved.

Not to mention, organizations today are experimenting with new structures - holacracy, flat, and flexible, including gig economy workers into the mix. Even if your employees would like to go up, there simply may not be enough layers to provide the perception of movement. Growth of the past centered on elevated titles, pay, and scope of responsibility. Career growth today is more about career mobility. What does this mean for your business? We need to start fostering career planning that includes skill variety and breadth, rather than just focused on tenure and depth in one area.

Here are three ways you can get started.

Have regular check-in conversations

Managers will never know where their direct report’s interest lies without, you guessed it…communication! Usually, managers use 1:1 conversations to talk about the past and the present: what’s been done in the last few weeks and what’s needed now to move forward. It’s important to ingrain the future and timeless components as well: where do they want to head and what strengths are they exploring that could be brought to the table. Think of it as the 15X4 model. Divide an hour check-in to four parts: past, present, future, and strengths.

Performance management tools can help you formalize and automate the process. If you have a learning tool in place, you can tie development conversations directly to courses that match employee career growth interests.

Learning/Using unrelated skills in current role

Speaking of strengths, consistently ask employees what strengths they want to use -- and be aware that these will change over time. From a neuroscience perspective, our brains are wired to thrive on variety and novelty. Historically, the preference was for employees to hone a set of skills or knowledge. Today, you can Google knowledge in seconds that took years and years to acquire! Employees are valued today for finding, sharing and receiving a wide range of knowledge. They are also valued for honing complex skills, but at the same time, being adaptable to changing technologies.

Today, switching it up could have more advantages. What's something new someone is interested in learning? Do they have strength outside of work they want to bring inside? What concept or insight from another field could apply to the situation at hand? Even if there isn't an obvious application within their current role, find an opportunity and acknowledge their work in this new area. What starts as a side project may have great benefit for the company and for the employee.

Cross-Function or Cross-Department Moves

Lateral moves in the same organization can be exciting for the employee - a chance to get a bigger picture of the business, learn new skills, apply hidden strengths. It’s also insightful for the organization – a chance for a fresh pair of eyes and complementary talents to be applied in a new way. However, historically rotational assignments were primarily for new hires to get them engaged or high potentials who need a broader picture of the business to get leadership experience that leads to promotion.

Now, we need to expand lateral moves to include everyone in between. This can impact engagement, retention, and even innovation in the organization. However, when you increase lateral moves across all levels, it's like having to constantly introduce new members to existing families and you might not know how long they'll be with you. Consider having "mini" onboarding processes to help make lateral moves successful – including essential work knowledge but also team relationships.

Career Development is in All Directions

Did you know that 94 percent of employees would stay at a company longer if that company invested in their career development? That should be reason enough for you to take development seriously, but the key to making development successful is to broaden your thinking. While it might seem more complex at first, shortcuts and scale are gained when each leader does their part to look for opportunities to develop their employees in all directions. Consider a career growth as an unmarked landscape, not a ladder. Start shaping yours today and create a culture of happy employees who are inclined to stick around.

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