Performance Management
7 min read

Adopting a new perspective on career development


Michael Callans

VP of People Science, Culture Amp

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Building a career development strategy may be the single most important consideration you need for your organization and employees. Why? Because humans have a fundamental need to grow and have a feeling of accomplishment. This is especially true for work life. Contrary to the popular belief that people leave an organization because of a bad manager, research suggests that the most significant contributor to turnover is poor career development opportunities. 

Historically, organizational strategies to build career development plans have been to organize jobs as a hierarchy: stepping stones to move linearly up the corporate ladder. This article will discuss why that approach may no longer be viable and how high-performing organizations are adapting their strategies to meet the rapidly changing world of work. 

What is the new normal “world of work”?

The traditional idea of static career pathways may no longer hold in the new world of work where jobs and roles need to be agile and responsive to a dynamic environment. Today, companies are restructuring into teams with fewer levels; jobs are formed more spontaneously around the needs and skills of a customer or project, and technology is both rapidly eliminating and adding jobs to the workplace. Let’s go over how the workplace has evolved recently.  

Organizations are becoming flatter

One study by Mercer found that more than half of the board of directors surveyed took action to create flatter organizations with more lateral movement and temporary team structures. With fewer hierarchical steps, the notion of linear upward mobility is becoming obsolete.

Jobs and associated skills are in a constant state of change

Whether you call it a Fourth Industrial Revolution or Globalization 4.0, new skills are needed faster than organizations can train for using traditional learning and development within job roles. Given these rapid changes, the skills required for a specific job today may be irrelevant to that job in the future. Thus, building out elaborate job matrices with defined competencies and responsibilities may cause more confusion and frustration to employees who attempt to build a career to match the next step.

Jobs are disappearing and emerging

Beyond shifts in skill requirements, the types of jobs available yesterday, today, and tomorrow are changing more rapidly than ever before. Automation has led to the elimination of many physical jobs. It is estimated that 30% of the hours worked globally could be automated by 2030. On the other hand, new jobs are emerging in the space where technology and social interactions merge (e.g., health care, data analytics). Further, the COVID-19 pandemic created a wide range of jobs and restructuring that would have never been considered prior. This means that career planning with present-day roles and responsibilities may not reflect what is available and needed tomorrow.

Alternative dynamic career development models

High performing companies are adapting to the rapidly changing world of work by shifting from static roles and linear career progressions to a model where the focus is on an individualized plan to develop evolving skills that can be applied to multiple possible opportunities.

In a recent article Mikael Bäckström, one of the HR VPs at Spotify, challenged organizations to “rethink” the use of traditional career frameworks and career paths. Employees shouldn’t “check-the-box” of skills required for the next role and expect advancement without regard to business need or availability for that role. Instead, he established the “Spotify Growth Incubator,” where employees and managers workshop on how to grow new, more in-depth skills to meet the organization’s future requirements.

Many top-performing organizations like Cisco, Nestle, Google, IBM, GE, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Unilever, and Bank of America have implemented “Talent Marketplaces.” It facilitates a more agile work structure where an employee can move around in various teams and multiple projects according to their ability to contribute, given their skills. To maximize this approach’s benefits is to breakdown work into smaller projects and components (e.g., fractionalize). Vicki Walia, chief talent and capability office at Prudential Financial, found that building a marketplace that seeks skilled experts to take on the specific work components instead of particular a role can result in more efficient and effective ways to get the work done. 

Further, organizations like AT&T are developing internal L&D programs that focus on skill development. Their Workforce 2020 program focuses on learning interchangeable skills and offers a new career profile tool that supports career development trajectories for workers who can acquire relevant skills to match future job requirements. Additionally, micro-learning classes are emerging that facilitate learning focused on listening and providing feedback skills. These competencies are critical to working with others in an organization – regardless of level or role. These become increasingly important as a person moves into a managerial position where coaching, motivating, and directing others require interpersonal skills and awareness. 

Career development requires meaningful conversations

With the growing awareness that relevant skill acquisition is critical to career development and organizational success in this new era of rapid workplace change, the next important consideration is determining how best to develop employees’ skills. Clearly, building a list of skills and job matrices then leaving employees to navigate the options themselves hasn’t and will continue not to work. Nor will an approach where a manager dictates the development path for an employee. Instead, skill and career development is the responsibility of both the employee and the manager: it must be a collaborative effort.

With this collaboration in mind, we define effective management as the ability to inspire, motivate, and support direct reports to do their best work, and demonstrate deep personal care and connection with employees. Of course, managers should do this while also consistently achieving desired business outcomes. Effective managers help to build mutually beneficial career objectives reflective of a company’s purpose and values and the employee’s purpose and values. To build these objectives on purpose and values, a manager needs to have regular, ongoing, high-value career 1-on-1 conversations with each employee.

Consider this three-step conversation process: 

  1. Take time to get to know them personally

Ask them to tell their story of their journey from childhood to today.  What were some of the difficult life and work choices they made, including how and why they made them. What lessons did their experiences teach them. You should know what motivates them and what holds them back.

  1. Explore possibilities

Ask probing questions about what career(s) would be aspirational. It can and perhaps should be more than one. What is their vision when they reach the pinnacle of their career?

  1. Help them shape a plan

With the future vision in mind, collaborate on a plan to get them there. The goal should focus on which skills the individual wants to grow and how both of you can make it happen. Think of it as the roadmap to self-actualization.

Of course, not all managers are readily equipped to engage effectively in these conversations. Feedback and listening skills can be honed through practice, and the use of online micro-learning courses like those developed by LifeLabs Learning.  Further, online tools like Culture Amp’s 1-on-1 Conversations helps managers and employees have more meaningful, continuous conversations about career and individual development goals. 

As we mentioned, employees don’t leave their jobs due to a bad manager alone; however, they do leave their jobs when managers don’t do the heavy lifting of helping them build their careers.

In closing, keep it open

With these significant changes in the world of work, your organizations and your people need to focus on growth and drive individualized development to stay current.  We need to stop thinking in our old ways of building rigid career frameworks and suggesting that employees follow a linear pathway that will most likely become outdated before the employees get there. Instead, you have a great responsibility to pay attention to enabling learning of relevant skills and making sure there are ongoing conversations about progression and performance. It’s essential to gauge what employees are aiming for and how they are tracking to get there.  

Finally, given the importance of career development, it is critical to evaluate the degree to which employees believe they are advancing and are receiving impactful coaching from their leaders.  By conducting regular engagement surveys, you can determine how well your approach to development and coaching is working and where you can focus on improvement. For more guidance, see Culture Amp’s complimentary Guide to designing a survey.