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Career pathing 101
Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Writer, Culture Amp

Considering the state of the world over the past couple of years, it’d be easy to assume that job satisfaction is fairly low right now. Surprisingly, the opposite is true – it’s actually the highest it’s been in 20 years, according to data from The Conference Board. That said, only 54% of US employees say they’re very satisfied with their job, a number that could be much higher.

According to that same data, one of the most consistent contributors to employee satisfaction over the last 10 years has been the potential for future growth. How do you demonstrate that potential to your staff? Career pathing is a powerful place to start.

What exactly is career pathing?

Career pathing, at its most basic, is the series of jobs an individual intends to hold during their time at a company (or over their career as a whole). It’s more than just a list of jobs, though – think of it as a roadmap.

The starting point is the employee’s current position, while the destination represents a goal, either short- or long-term. The career path is the route, along with all the twists, turns, and pit stops, that the employee needs to take to get there.

A career path is as unique as the employee that follows it. While it’s helpful to have a basic path that reflects how a new hire might advance into a management role, that isn’t going to be anywhere near as useful as a path developed specifically with the employee’s history, skills, knowledge, and experience in mind.

Finally, not every career path will be vertical — in other words, not everyone wants to move up the corporate ladder. A horizontal career path, while not as common, maps out the options for employees that want to move to a different department or role without fundamentally changing what they do or the nature of their responsibilities.

For example, a software developer might not be interested in a management position. If they would rather remain an individual contributor, the next step in their career could involve owning more complex and cross-functional software projects.

Why is career pathing important?

In short, because employee satisfaction matters now more than ever. The Great Resignation is in full swing, and people have shown time and again that they will consider leaving an organization if it no longer aligns with their values and aspirations.

Companies would do well to avoid this turnover – it’s exceptionally expensive, costing US businesses a trillion dollars each year. Replacing an employee not only costs money but also requires a time investment and could potentially even damage the morale of the team. On the flipside, engaged and satisfied employees contribute to a more productive and profitable company as a whole.

Growth potential plays a huge role in overall satisfaction. Research from IBM found that employees are hungry for career advancement opportunities, ranking ahead of other factors like compensation and organizational stability. Providing clear career paths for staff is an excellent way for businesses of all sizes to avoid turnover and retain their top talent.

Everyone benefits from effective career pathing. Employees gain clarity on what steps they can take to further their career, along with the training and development opportunities to make it happen. And employers get more engaged staff and a clearer idea of how to position the right people in the right places to foster growth. It’s a win-win.

How to help managers develop better career paths for their team

Effective career pathing starts with management. An employee’s direct manager is most familiar with their strengths and weaknesses, as well as what it would take to advance their career. Their direct manager also knows the requirements, challenges, and opportunities of each position in their department.

To get started, managers can sit down with each member of their team to discuss their career goals and ask candid questions like:

  • Where do you see your career heading in the next year? What about five years?
  • How do you think you could make an even bigger difference here?
  • Do you think any of your skills or strengths are being underutilized?

Once the employee has a goal in mind, the manager can work with them to create a roadmap that gets them from their current position to that destination. This might include promotions to aim for, skills to develop, and weaknesses to overcome. This gives both parties a clearer picture of where they’re at, where they’re headed, and how they’ll get there.

This roadmap should be documented and stored where it's easily accessible for the employee, manager, and HR team. Managers can encourage employee progress by checking in with them about the plan and their progress on a regular basis – at least monthly, with a longer dedicated conversation during performance reviews.

Even after the plan is in place, there’s room for flexibility. A good leader is always on the lookout for potential opportunities – both horizontal and vertical – that could benefit either their direct reports or the larger organization. Identifying ways for employees to grow and thrive is one of the main responsibilities of management, and it shows your team that you want to see them succeed.

Finally, ensure that at every level of your company, the job descriptions are thorough and clear. You’re more likely to attract interest and find the right candidate when people understand the requirements and responsibilities of the position.

Career pathing creates new opportunities for internal recruiting

Internal recruiting is one of the most effective ways to fill vacancies and strengthen your team, for several reasons:

  • It’s more cost-effective: Existing employees are already familiar with the company and the way it operates. This cuts down training time and expenses significantly since you don’t need to onboard a new hire from scratch.
  • It boosts morale: Internal recruiting, whether horizontal or vertical, makes employees feel seen and valued. And employees that feel seen and valued are more likely to work harder, invest more energy, and produce better output, ultimately increasing the bottom line. In other words, it improves the employee experience.
  • It reduces turnover: Employees that feel acknowledged and see opportunities for growth at a company are more likely to stay at that company, creating a cycle that continuously strengthens the team and organization.

To find candidates for promotion, start with management. Ensure that your company’s leadership has a list of available positions and their criteria handy when they’re reviewing team performance.

Having rough career paths sketched out for each position in your company will make it easier to spot internal recruiting opportunities as they arise. While these generic paths won’t necessarily map to each individual employee, they provide guidelines that can help you recognize when someone has the skills to succeed in a particular role.

By taking a proactive approach to internal recruiting, you not only get to approach employees and offer them exciting new positions but also move your company toward a better version of itself by ensuring the right team members are in the right positions.

Chart the course to a better career path

Whether you’re looking to round out your team with some internal promotions or strengthen employee engagement during the Great Resignation, career pathing can help.

This method of planning out the path to a specific position or promotion brings clarity to teams and individual employees and ensures that everyone is on the same page regarding where they’re at – and where they’re headed.

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