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Great Work = Great Career Development

While most organizations expect great work, we don’t necessarily take the time to identify what actually contributes to it. In his book, Great Work, David Sturt has done that for us. Drawing on the research of O.C. Tanner and a Forbes Insight Study of over 1,000 individuals, five key skills or behaviors have emerged:

  • Ask the right questions.
  • See for yourself.
  • Talk to your outer circle.
  • Improve the mix.
  • Deliver the difference.

While driving great work, these behaviors also create a framework for great career development.

Ask the right questions. Career development is not about paths, promotions or moves…it’s all about conversation.  And the currency of great career conversations is questions. Whether coming from the manager or the employee, thoughtful questions sustain an ongoing development dialogue.

Managers might consider questions like:

  • What have you always been naturally good at?
  • What makes life worth living?
  • What do you wish you had more time to do?
  • What kind of work do you typically gravitate toward/away from?

And employees can keep the conversation going as well with question like:

  • Which of my skills are most valuable?
  • What can you always count on me for?
  • What behaviors have you observed that might get in my way?
  • Under what circumstances do I make the best contributions?

See for yourself. Career development, just like great work, requires a reality-based look at today’s world of work.  Understanding the needs of the business as well as the needs of the customer are not passive activities. They require active exploration and interaction with the environment. Ride alongs. Customer observations. Competitive shopping experiences. These provide ways for you – whether you’re a manager or an employee – to see for yourself the changing complexion of the workplace and to recognize the broad range of career opportunities that exist.

Talk to your outer circle. Investing in a broader network drives performance and career development. It only makes sense. Expanding one’s contacts and purview opens new possibilities for employees looking to learn and grow. It also helps managers who want to support their employees in doing so.

The defined boundaries of silo-based organizations limit possibilities. But managers who are able to reach beyond departments and functional borders are in a great position to source and create developmental opportunities and experiences. Stretch assignments in a different department. Cooperative job rotations. Informative meetings and client presentations. Possibilities multiply exponentially when managers and employees alike are able to tap a more expansive resource pool.

Improve the mix.  When it comes to career development, the ‘mix’ refers to the countless ways to learn and grow. Too frequently people (managers and employees) think of career development as a promotion or a lateral move. But move-based thinking is inherently limiting.  New roles won’t necessarily be available when someone is ready to develop. You can improve the mix dramatically by considering in-job development. What activities or experiences can occur within the context of someone’s existing role?  This is an area that can be mined to spark great work and great development.

Deliver the difference. In terms of great work, this skill refers to staying with something through its execution, implementation excellence, and persevering in service of results.  Career development requires the same focus.

It’s easy to let the busy-ness of work, crunch periods, and short-term objectives obscure one’s longer-range goals. As a result, it’s important to develop a rigorous but flexible plan that ensures that career development gets the attention it deserves. Make a plan‘[1]’ that is:

Documented – Putting it in writing signals that this is significant and that the manager and employee are taking it seriously. It acts as a reminder and helps to drive follow-up. Write it on paper or online –  rather than in concrete.  That way you can treat it as the living, breathing, and changeable tool that it is.

Employee-Owned – Without buy-in, you might as well opt-out. Employees must take responsibility for their plans to generate the commitment and energy required to implement. Ownership skyrockets when the plan is personalized to the individual, focused and specific, and doable in light of other activities.

Aligned with the employee’s goals. Linking the plan to short-term and long-term goals tests that the activities are worth the effort they will take. When the going gets tough, this overt linkage can sustain focus and energy forward and toward one’s bigger career objectives.

Linked to the needs of the organization. Let’s get real here. We all know that resources are in short supply and support can be fickle. Both can be pulled at any time. Don’t jeopardize your development efforts. If what someone is doing to learn and develop directly contributes to the bigger picture, everyone is on safe and solid ground.

In a time-starved, pressure-filled business environment, it’s helpful to understand that great work and great career development are driven by the same key behaviors. Cultivate skills in one context and you’ll see results in the other… which makes for the ultimate workplace win-win!



[1] Excerpted from Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want by Julie Winkle Giulioni and Beverly Kaye and published by Berrett-Koehler.


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