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Why We Still Can’t Get Career Development Right

Updated September 2021

Work Institute’s 2021 Retention Report reprises a familiar refrain:

“Career development continues to be the leading cause of employee turnover in the US.”

Yet again, organizations, talent professionals, and leaders have to face the hard data and hard reality that we’ve still not cracked the code on what matters most to employees: career opportunities. It’s not for lack of effort. Companies are investing extraordinary resources in skills training, portals, online systems, and processes designed to make this happen. And it all falls short. Here’s why.

Dated Definitions

career opportunities stairsWe continue to hold tightly to and perpetuate the illusion that career development operates via the old career ladder, which (in days gone by) allowed for the regular, progressive and consistent movement upward toward increasingly desirable positions. Unfortunately, the ladder no longer exists. It’s been replaced by any number of alternatives that are more organic, flexible, and a lot less linear — webs, jungle gyms, and the climbing wall. We have to update our definitions and pictures because as long as we confuse promotions with career opportunities, satisfaction and engagement will suffer.

Problematic Probes

Beginning at a young age, children are asked by well-meaning adults, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” So, from youth, we are conditioned to think in terms of specific roles, titles, and jobs. Then, in the workplace, managers inadvertently reinforce this thinking.

Despite organizational realities that limit movement and promotions, managers still routinely ask, “Where do you see yourself in two years?” The alternative to focusing on what people want to “be” is helping them reframe their objectives around what they want to “do” with questions like:

  • What kinds of work would you like to be doing?
  • What do you wish to accomplish and contribute?
  • Are there types of problems you would like to be solving?
  • What about your current role do you love and would like to do more of?

Reframing the conversation can reframe expectations. These questions open up a world of possibilities that allow leaders to offer career opportunities. In the process, they drive the satisfaction and engagement that serves the individual and the business.

Lateral Limitations

Silo-based organizations struggle with the one area of career movement that’s available despite leaner hierarchical structures and the delaying of the management ranks. Lateral transfers are a natural vehicle for allowing employees to continue to learn, grow and contribute in new ways. Seeing the organization, customers, and work through a different lens offers powerful development that can be energizing and instructive. But, too frequently, managers report that they don’t know about opportunities outside of their departments.

Stymied Stretch Assignments

When promotions or moves aren’t available, career opportunities are still possible through assignments, projects, and other activities that expand capacity and offer the chance to engage in different, interesting experiences. But, given how time- and priority-stretched most organizations and individuals are, it’s frequently impossible to take on such challenges without “real work” suffering.

“Organizations must come to terms with the reality that development is real work.”

Leaders must master a new competency: the ability to identify and package essential tasks and projects as career opportunities. They must then offer support and coaching to ensure both individual learning and appropriate business results.

Transparency Trap

When employees (and their managers) can’t explain why one person is promoted while another is not, it fuels frustration, speculation, and resentment. Under these circumstances, opportunities seem scarce and unattainable, and putting forth continued effort can feel futile. And when this happens, satisfaction and engagement suffer.

Money Matters

The motivation for promotions and moving up doesn’t revolve exclusively around development, or even titles, stature, and responsibility (all of which are significant). It’s also about compensation. Until we find ways to reward learning, the development of new competencies, and expanded in-role contributions, employees will naturally associate career opportunities with income-enhancing promotions — and satisfaction and engagement will continue to suffer.

Satisfaction with career development has been a key driver of engagement for years and will likely continue to be. As a result, it’s time for leaders and organizations to finally confront the challenging realities and systemic limitations, and figure out how to offer meaningful career opportunities to employees.

Originally published in SmartBrief.

4 comments on “Why We Still Can’t Get Career Development Right

  1. AG5 on

    Good article. Employee turnover is definitely an important issue for a lot of organizations. In my eyes, an employer should facilitate the possibility for ambitious employees to develop themselves. With the right resources, like skills management software, this reduces the risk of employees switching to other employers.

    • Julie Winkle Giulioni on

      Completely agree… thanks for your comment. And while technology is definitely helpful, I find that it’s the manager’s ability and willingness to engage with employees that’s really the game changer. Now, I noticed you mentioned ‘ambitious employees’; what is your point of view on supporting the rest of the employee population with development?

  2. Susana on

    Completely agree. These days I have realized some managers justify not doing a devolopment plan, due to the millenial generation, which have a lack of commitment lasting at their jobs a couple of years.
    Some other supervisors are more focused on business than in people, argumenting that they don’t have time for that, so they just limit the interactions to feedback expecting employees improve their skills by their own.

    • Julie Winkle Giulioni on

      Thanks, Susana, for your observations. There are a lot of reasons leaders give for not engaging in career development. And yet, it’s probably the most important priority they have – for the business and for the employees. I really appreciate your comment.


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