Career development is hard—really hard in many organizations. And the reasons are numerous. Promotions and moves (the traditional currency of development and advancement) are limited. Tenures are shorter. Workloads are greater, leaving less time for managers and employees to dedicate to growth.
But there’s more. In an era of disruption to the bulk of the employment landscape, there is one aspect that remains in many ways unchanged, unexamined, and unsatisfactory. And that’s career development.
Today, the idea of a “career” is ambiguous at best, and perhaps it’s even become an anachronism. After all, from an employer’s perspective:
- What does “career” mean in a world where people will change jobs an average of 12 times during the course of their working lives?
- How much development is possible when the average tenure of an employee is just more than four years?
- How does the notion of career development operate in a gig economy?
- How can we balance the needs of the business with employee expectations for continuous growth?
When it comes to rethinking the idea of career, one possible solution is to break it down into components and address each of those in meaningful ways. While developing a whole career (whatever that means in today’s workplace) may be daunting or feel impossible, developing incremental building blocks can be more doable. And for employees, these building blocks converge, layering over a lifetime to create a rich and satisfying career.
The Building Blocks of a “Career”The gestalt of career development breaks down into eight distinct elements or building blocks that employees may be interested in and that will contribute to their overall career development. Cracking the code on what’s most important comes down to dialogue with employees, asking them which building blocks are most compelling and interesting and which they’d like to focus on.
Are they most interested in:
- competence—building critical capabilities, skills, and expertise?
- contribution—becoming a real “difference-maker,” A-player, and go-to resource?
- connection—cultivating relationships and deepening one’s network?
- choice—enhancing the control and autonomy one can exercise within and outside of the workplace?
- challenge—stretching beyond what’s known, experimenting, stepping into the discomfort zone?
- confidence—performing in ways that confirm effectiveness and grow the internal sense of certainty?
- contentedness—experiencing satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy within the context of work?
- compensation—optimizing the financial rewards associated with the contributions made?
Eating the Elephant . . . One Bite at a TimePart of the challenge associated with career development is that it can feel overwhelming— like eating an elephant. Yet, as the saying goes, the only way to do it is one bite at a time. These building blocks offer a similar way forward around career development. They are the bites that can be taken over time.
Furthermore, what makes this incremental approach to career development even more effective is that the building blocks take on greater significance at different times in each of our lives. For instance, early on in my own career, competence was my priority. I had a voracious appetite for learning and amassing a portfolio of skills, and this mattered more to me than anything else. During my late 20s, I was beginning to understand the power of having the right people around me, and my focus turned toward connections and networking. With the birth of my first child came the need for greater control and the ability to manage my time more flexibly as well as greater concern about elevating my compensation to address the additional expenses of family. And more recently, I look for new and different challenges that, when met, feed my desire for a greater sense of confidence. Developing each of these areas contributed to my growth and engagement at the time; and looking back, I can see how each built upon the last, creating a career that’s clearer in the rearview mirror than when trying to look ahead at the wide-open road.
When leaders and employees break down the idea of career in this way, they can prioritize the development that’s the most important as well as the most possible at any given time. For example, compensation might be fixed at a particular point; but perhaps that’s an ideal time to grow one’s skills, confidence, or network. Thinking of development in this way offers greater hope and possibility for growth throughout one’s career. We can focus less on what can’t happen and instead leverage the environment for what it can offer.
When leaders understand employees’ developmental priorities, they can work together on plans and actions to facilitate meaningful incremental growth. People experience a sense of momentum and accomplishment because of the narrower focus on one or more of the building blocks. And these building blocks roll up to create that broader sense of career and career development.
As the employment landscape continues to evolve, so will our understanding of what “career” means and how to commit to development despite the complexity of fewer promotions, shorter tenures, and non-traditional working relationships. Targeted incremental growth may be the way forward; and these developmental building blocks just may be a leader’s most powerful tool—not just for enhancing development but for engagement, retention, and results.