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ATD Blog

3 Shifts to Creating Greater Career Ownership

Thursday, May 13, 2021

“How do I get promoted?”
“I don’t see a clear career path.”
“My manager isn’t coaching me.”

Sound familiar? Today’s professionals expect more career development and mentoring than prior generations did. You could also argue that as the workplace is becoming more complex to navigate, employees of all tenures are becoming increasingly vocal about their need for more purposeful and clear direction.

At the same time, business leaders struggle to keep up with changing priorities while playing the role of career coach. We also can’t forget that people leaders are focused on their own aspirations. As this gap between employee expectations versus what managers can deliver increases, organizations are losing critical leadership bench strength that can prove hard to recover. This is concerning as economists forecast that with post-pandemic economic recovery in sight, employees will have increased employment opportunities.

Elevating employee ownership of career development demands skills and beliefs that many employees (and people leaders) don’t yet possess. I’ve found that by making the following strategic shifts, organizations can put employees in the driver’s seat of their career development.

Shift #1: Define Career Ownership

We’ve made posters and banners and built entire career development strategies around it. We tell employees to own their careers and ask managers to support them. However, employees are often left confused and alone in the process. What does it really mean for employees to own their career path in your organization?

The first step is clearly defining the behaviors we expect of employees. Here are some examples from companies that are leading the way. Which ones resonate with you? Which ones do you have an opportunity to more clearly define for your team or organization?


Employees who own their careers:

  • Initiate career conversations with their managers.
  • Articulate their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Have a clear vision and well-defined goals.
  • Follow through on development commitments.
  • Readily acknowledge mistakes and learn from them.
  • Proactively seek feedback to uncover potential blind spots.

Shift #2: Strive to Scale the Wall, Not Climb the Ladder

Career ownership means embracing a set of expectations that align with the realities facing most organizations today—the corporate ladder has been overtaken by the rock wall.

You may remember the days of the career-ladder binder—an attempt to create and manage well-defined career paths for the various roles in our organization or team. But, given changing workplace conditions, trimmed hierarchies, and new ways of accomplishing work, much of that position-oriented work has been left to the paper shredder. It has been replaced with a new metaphor: the rock wall.


A rock wall model implies that people won’t have the same path or pace of growth. It suggests that development opportunities are available all the time. Seeing career development as a climbing wall means seeing multidirectional options rather than just looking up the ladder to the next promotion, so it helps employees see realistic and more expansive expectations for what’s possible. The key is teaching employees how to recognize and seize these opportunities throughout their careers.

Shift #3: Teach Employees to See Growth Opportunities

Shrinking budgets and unending time constraints mean that traditional methods of learning may be less practical than in the past. But that’s no reason to put growth on hold. Opportunities for meaningful development are plentiful and can address the employee’s desires for accelerated growth.

From on-the-job-experiences and special projects to informational interviews and networking, organizations can benefit from promoting and recognizing these opportunities as significant growth opportunities.

The key is helping employees recognize and seize a range of development opportunities to promote their growth. Here are a few ways organizations and leaders can support career development ownership:

  • Offer formal career development training, specifically for individual contributors.
  • Create peer-coaching groups.
  • Provide opportunities to volunteer in the community.
  • Encourage formal and informal mentoring.
  • Offer open-enrollment personal and professional development courses.

According to LinkedIn Learning’s Workplace Learning Report, 94 percent of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career. As a learning professional, our job is to ensure that we make the right investments in our employees and that employees recognize them as such.

About the Author

Christine DiDonato, founder of Career Revolution, Inc. is an innovator in the space of career development. As a former Talent Management Executive at Sony, Christine focused her passion and research on developing a new generation of employees to become the next generation of leaders. Christine is a LinkedIn Learning Author and seasoned facilitator who partners with clients to move beyond theory and academics and to put tangible solutions in place that address the challenges of our new workforce. She is recognized as a leading expert in her field as seen in her contributions to popular media sources like TIME, Money, Inc., Forbes, and USA Today. In her new book “Get There Faster: The no-nonsense, no-fluff guide to the career you want”, Christine helps a new generation of emerging talent take ownership of their career path and live their best life sooner.

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