Manager-employee career discussions are the first step toward an all-encompassing organizational career development program.

Career development has emerged as a pressing issue in organizations today to attract and retain talent. Millennials—who are experiencing slowed career progression from streamlined organizational structures and Baby Boomers delaying retirement—are certainly key drivers, but the issue cuts across multiple generations. The search is on for effective solutions.

Employers acknowledge that their career development initiatives are not achieving desired results. Less than half of them say that they are managing this effectively, according to Towers Watson, and lack of opportunities for career advancement is cited by employees as a top reason they leave organizations.

There is increased urgency to address career concerns: Global firms face a rising talent exodus as economic and labor market conditions improve, according to a recent study from global management consultancy Hay Group, conducted in association with the Centre for Economics and Business Research.

A starting place

The dynamic interplay of multiple trends—flatter organizations, skill shortages, a multigenerational workforce, and changing employer and employee expectations—are likely to increase.

A common approach in many organizations today is to promote or even mandate that managers hold career discussions with their employees. As reported in the 2013 Gallup report State of the American Workplace, managers have a unique role to empower employees and to help them discover their strengths.

Although the structure of career conversations may vary, typically they are designed to promote an employee's self-discovery, include an assessment of skills, and lead to a development plan to build career options.

This conversation between managers and employees is important for several reasons:

  • Employees need to drive their own careers, and self-discovery is an important first step.
  • Managers have a good vantage point to observe employees' skills, strengths, and development needs.
  • Managers can serve as a conduit between the employee and the larger organization, providing information, access, and support.

However, there are impediments on the manager's side that can stop such conversations from taking place or limit their effectiveness, including:

  • lack of manager skill (which should be addressed through training)
  • concern about not having career solutions or opening up "Pandora's Box"
  • fear of losing valued employees to other positions, internally or externally
  • lack of rewards or recognition for managers to undertake such conversations.

On the employee side, there are barriers to career conversations as well:

  • concerns that managers may not be supportive
  • lacking line of sight or knowledge about other career options
  • lack of knowledge about skill levels required to grow and develop.

Even when career conversations are conducted skillfully and on a timely basis, this is not sufficient. Career development must start with a conversation, but this should be considered a first step only and not the final destination toward career development advocacy.

A more robust approach is needed

As with any change, promoting the shift to career development requires organizational supports and a systemic approach. These include:

  • expanding career options
  • providing greater transparency
  • rewarding exporters of talent
  • reinforcing lateral moves
  • avoiding one-size-fits-all solutions
  • building measurement and accountability.

More organizations engage in strategic workforce planning to assess which skills will be needed to meet future business needs and determine how to address gaps. This analytical framework has the potential to address career management concerns of employees simultaneously.

Expanding career options

Many organizations have a fairly rigid, vertical career structure that is not a good fit for this rapidly changing environment, and certainly does not meet the needs of employees. Instead, what is needed is a strategic view of the workplace, matching needs of the marketplace today and in the future with a more flexible approach to careers.

This shift to a flexible workforce is happening already as a response to skill shortages: 40 percent of the workforce, more than 60 million people, are expected to be contingent by 2020, according to a study from Intuit. To compete in the future, Accenture reports in the 2013 Rise of the Extended Workforce, talent management will expand beyond enterprise boundaries to include a new extended workforce: a global network of contractors, outsourcing partners, strategic partners, and other nontraditional workers.

A new model is needed internally that replaces the old ladder approach with one that reflects the new realities of working, where collaboration and speed are paramount. We can compare the new networked organization with a honeycomb of interconnected roles, and that expands the possibilities for careers, if leveraged effectively.

Cathy Benko and Andrew Liakapoulis of Deloitte have proposed three ways that careers can be defined that better meet the needs of employers and employees alike: how careers are built, how work gets done, and how participation is fostered. With new ways of working, new mindsets are required. Multiple time zones, matrixed structures, and remote and contingent workers mean that the old career paradigms simply do not apply; silos destroy value.

A new career architecture is essential to keep pace with change.

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Providing greater transparency

With market demands fluctuating in real time, few organizations demonstrate the agility to adapt and change the way they view their workforces. Thus, organizations need to move beyond traditional job postings to translate the required skill sets for open positions and into competencies that clarify what is needed to prepare for a desired role.

That way, employees can visualize how their skills match the need and which gaps need to be closed. Such clarity also has the advantage of providing a job preview so internal candidates may opt out if a given opportunity is not the best fit. Onboarding also is a key factor to make transitions into new roles successful.

The rate of change means that employees likely do not have an accurate perspective on skills, and many skill sets are quickly out of date. Moreover, too often technology is not leveraged effectively for career management. Recent data from the Towers Watson Global Talent Management and Rewards Survey found that only 45 percent of employers use corporate intranet platforms to deliver career advancement programs.

However, there are exemplary companies that deliberately promote more fluid ways of managing careers by encouraging movement across lines of business, geographies, and functions. Such fluidity helps to build a robust leadership pipeline and also serves to retain top talent. GE and PepsiCo are both known for promoting movement up, down, and across to build skills and meet organizational talent needs.

Rewarding exporters of talent

An unfortunate consequence of the Great Recession is that managers fear the loss of head

count if they encourage employees to pursue career aspirations. Instead, managers should be rewarded when they demonstrate an enterprise perspective regarding talent and build a track record for developing people and their careers—whether inside their own business function or elsewhere. This recognition will create a virtuous cycle where new talent will be clamoring to work for such managers.

Reinforcing lateral moves

Too many companies still reward tenure as a criterion for promotion and celebrate milestones in internal publications. Although it is important to reward loyalty, it is sending an outdated message about careers. To change the mindset, publicize and reward individuals who make lateral and unconventional moves, and share how this cross-functional expertise enhances the business and promotes collaboration.

Other ways to promote the idea that "up is not the only way" include publicizing the stories of employees who exemplify this model of a honeycomb career, explaining what they did, how they did it, and what the impact is for the company. To further promote the value of lateral moves, reward collaboration practices across the organization.

Avoiding one size fits all

With multiple generations in the workplace, along with other aspects of diversity (including gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, to name a few), career development approaches need to flex to a wide range of needs. Consider the following examples.

A Boomer planning to retire in the next few years. Many from this cohort still want to work, be productive, and be valued for contributions. The organization also needs to capture institutional knowledge. Serving as a mentor can demonstrate how valued that mature worker is, and help disseminate accumulated wisdom that might otherwise be lost.

An employee who has plateaued in the technical arena, but is not interested in managing others. Creating a dual career track, which promotes needed technical skills as an alternative and valued way to progress, can help retain this employee.

A highly talented Gen Xer becomes a new parent. To address the employee's desire to work part time for the next few months, provide flexibility but without the penalty of losing the performance equity that has been established.

A high-performing black woman. Although stellar at her job, she is not getting the visibility she needs to break through to the next level. She needs access to networks and a sponsor to enable her to reach her full potential.

Millennials who will stay at the same job for an average of two years. Recent statistics from CLO Media confirm this short tenure. Approach this challenge-driven cohort with engaging work assignments, flexibility to work and maintain personal balance, and plenty of the feedback they crave.

Diversity in our society and workplace will only increase, and to respond effectively organizations need to be cognizant of the need for flexibility, considering employee preferences, aspirations, and life-cycle issues, along with enterprise and marketplace needs.

Building measurement and accountability

As with any organizational initiative, there must be accountability for results. Tracking and measuring career management progress is indispensable to signal to managers that this focus is not optional. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this, but a good start is to define where the organization is headed from a business and strategic workforce planning perspective, define the goal for a new career approach, establish baseline data and measure year-over-year progress, and adjust as needed.

Career discussions are a critical component of career development, but we must move beyond the conversation to deliberate action to achieve success.


Career Management Pain Points

  • Only 17 percent of U.S. and U.K. companies have formalized career paths for the majority of employees, according to Bersin & Associates.
  • Less than half of employers effectively use technology to deliver career programs, according to Towers Watson.
  • Accelerating retirements are leaving significant leadership gaps, Hay Group reports.
  • Only 47 percent of organizations provide managers with career management training; not surprisingly, a modest 41 percent of employees rate their managers as holding effective career management discussions.

Making Career Management Stick

  • Provide a compelling business case for why career management must be addressed.
  • Define what success should look like and use this vision to create new solutions.
  • Obtain sponsorship and the necessary supports (technology investments, manager and employee training, design of new career architecture, as relevant).
  • Link the career management initiative to strategic workforce planning and anticipated pipeline gaps, especially for mission-critical roles.
  • Demonstrate and celebrate career management progress.