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The Many Languages of Career Development


languages of career development

We’ve all heard of the 5 Love Languages… right? But how many career development languages do you know? If you’re like many, the answer is just one: Promotions!

But in most organizations, the time-honored tradition of defining career development in terms of promotions, moves, and/or title changes is dying or altogether dead. Hierarchies are flattening. Job bands are broadening. Work is more organic, organized around evolving needs versus entrenched structures. When opportunities do finally present themselves, competition is stiffer. Remote work has removed the previous geographic limitations of who was within a reasonable commute to the workplace.

Logically we all know that the opportunity to grow by moving to a new role is inherently limited. Yet we can’t help but continue to measure success against the artificial (and elusive) yardstick of the promotion.

It’s time to finally recognize that the language of climbing the corporate ladder is just one of the dialects of career development. And like Latin, for many, it’s becoming a dying language. Leaders who are willing to become more fluent in this area will be able to have richer conversations that drive greater employee satisfaction, engagement, retention, and the results organizations so desperately need.

Want to migrate from a monolingual to a multilingual approach to helping others grow? Put promotions aside for a moment and consider these alternative languages that facilitate deep and doable development in today’s workplace.


While not a language of development that comes to mind immediately for many, contribution taps our deeply human need to add value, make a difference, be of service, and live on purpose. When it’s used for development, it’s a win-win for the organization and the individual. And what might be surprising is that the research I conducted for my new book, Promotions Are So Yesterday, found that in aggregate, employees are more interested in growing this dimension than any others – including promotions, positions, and moves.


This is a more familiar language of development. It boils down to working with employees to intentionally develop the skills, knowledge, and capabilities that are needed to enjoy greater effectiveness and satisfaction today, but also to future-proof their careers for tomorrow.


There’s that expression, “it’s not what you know but who, you know”; and that certainly applies in part when it comes to career development. Connection is fundamentally about the growth that can come from expanding and deepening social networks, building productive, meaningful relationships, enhancing visibility, and creating a sense of community.


Frequently overlooked, confidence is a profound development dimension. Anyone who has ever experienced imposter syndrome (and that would be about 70% of us over the course of our careers) knows that lack of confidence can impose an invisible ceiling on success. Leaders who are fluent in this language can help people grow by building that sense of trust and assurance in their ability to perform predictably and with ease.


This is a development language that many leaders and employees already speak well. When you help people step up, step out, and step into new situations that stretch them beyond what they know and can do today, you usher them into the discomfort zone where learning and growth accelerate.


The idea of contentment might seem like a foreign language to leaders looking to develop others. But it’s being spoken by more employees today than ever before. Only amplified over the past two years, people are re-evaluating their priorities and their relationship to work. They’re looking for greater meaning, satisfaction, ease, and balance. And when they can work with leaders to find these things, there are tremendous possibilities for development as well as retention.


One of the three fundamental psychological needs we bring to the workplace, autonomy has become a pressing workplace issue. People crave greater control and independence. They want to make meaningful choices about their jobs – the how, when, and where of it. In fact, a recent Mercer study finds that one out of three employees would swap higher pay for a fully flexible work schedule. Exercising this kind of choice and decision-making is filled with opportunities for learning and growth.

These languages of career development have two important things in common. First, unlike promotions, positions, and moves, these are completely within the control of managers. And employees who can choose to take action and enable growth right within one’s current role – in the here and now. And second, my research found that in aggregate, employees find each of these languages more interesting than climbing the corporate ladder.

Any new language opens new doors and opportunities. And mastering these languages of development accomplishes the same thing for leaders. They are able to translate the old definition of career development and introduce a whole new vocabulary around growth. So, it’s time to cultivate greater fluency with career development by leveraging all of the available languages. The results will speak for themselves.

This post originally appeared on the Leader Communicator blog


  1. Julie I see you have it so wrong. Promotions are the key to vitality and the control you desire. Structure feeds our soul and allows independence. Knowledge is gained thru experience and education, one without the other creates dysfunction. The goal in a professional work environment is stability and and the creation of a common goal. All the elements above are great dreams, but the truth is people need to to work to feel satisfaction and the structure or “Old School” promotions is so yesterday theory feeds our well-being and allows people to achieve goals. If you live in a democratic sociality you see the need for a work force to see common goals beyond one’s self. Not all people have the luxury of choice in the job market education, experience, skills, ability. There are many paths to take in this journey called life, lets take it together and show our respect for those who over achieve and reward them with the titles, financial rewards, and the respect they deserve.

    • Thanks so much, Tom, for sharing your thoughts here. I appreciate your focus on a common goal beyond ourselves – and agree that it’s central to an organization’s success and, for many of us, it’s essential to individual satisfaction. I believe that pursuing non-linear growth opportunities doesn’t have to get in the way of working toward mutual goals though; in fact, it may enable people to support those goals even more effectively.

      While my book is provocatively titles Promotions Are So Yesterday, promotions will remain a feature within the workplace landscape. So definitely… let’s respect those who work hard toward that aspiration. At the same time, I’d advocate for respecting those who may not be eligible/ready/interested in that kind of growth with other opportunities to continue developing and thriving throughout their careers as well.

      I’m so happy you commented, Tom. And I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts in the future.


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