Are You Building a Culture of Career Development?

Structure, boldness, lack of boundaries, and a win-win mentality are all signs of a robust, sustainable career culture that will help businesses attract and engage talent.

In a previous blog I talked about the changing world of work and how employers and employees are coping with a new normal in which organizations must constantly adapt their skills sets to stay relevant and the only certain job security for an individual lies in professional mobility. I argued for a new “contract” between employers and employees in which career development opportunities are embedded in the culture, so organizations can enhance their competitive capabilities and individuals can enhance their professional skills and employability.
So, what are the key characteristics of a culture of career development?
1. It has structure and accountability
career development culture has a defined talent management framework designed to facilitate an individual’s career growth. It is not just a loose collection of resources. A career culture provides each employee with a structured way to align his or her career goals to current and future business needs, to the competencies valued by the organization, and to available opportunities. This requires:
  • Clear career paths for advancement, with the ability to move across the hierarchy horizontally as well as upward to achieve success
  • Growth opportunities for specialists who want to advance in their field but not necessarily to leadership positions  
  • Leveraging of talent assessment processes to identify existing workforce skills and help individuals focus their career development
  • Processes to create connections between individuals’ career aspirations and specific business needs 
  • Leadership accountability in working with team members to achieve their career aspirations 
2. It creates win/win opportunities
The second component of a culture geared toward career development is a focus on creating career projects with win/win opportunities for the organization and the individual.  Career projects have specific objectives and must be completed within a given time horizon.  The skills acquired in the project should be well-aligned to the needs of the organization while also enabling the individual to advance towards their long-term career goal(s). For example, let’s say Frank is interested in becoming an expert at selling large, complex consulting solutions to organizations and wishes to increase his impact within the organization. His manager knows this, having had career conversations in which they discussed Frank’s long-term goals and the skills needed to achieve them.  So he tasks Frank with leading a team creating a global framework that will enable the enterprise to be more successful in winning certain types of high-level consulting projects.  Developing this capability will help Frank advance his skills by building a high level of expertise within that domain, while helping the organization succeed in a key strategic area. 
HR professionals and leaders need to learn how to identify those intersections where business objectives meet individual career aspirations in order to create win/win opportunities for growth.  Given an opportunity to take on more of these types of career projects, Frank is more likely to be engaged in his work and his loyalty to the organization will increase.  
3. It understands that talent doesn’t belong to a department or to an organization
To accomplish win-win growth projects, a couple of pieces need to be in place. The employee needs to have a fairly clear sense of the direction she wants to take her future career. Plus, the relationship between manager and employee needs to be trusting enough that the employee is comfortable revealing her aspirations, even if they lead outside the company. In a seeming paradox, to keep a valued employee longer, her manager may need to talk with her about where she sees herself working next. Let’s say Susan wants to be the head of talent management in a larger organization. When a manager is open to discussing the skills she needs to get there, the discussion moves to a deeper, more meaningful level. “My manager is actually helping me build skills for the next step I will take outside this organization?”  This is a foreign idea for many managers. Many don’t even want to let a talented team member work outside their own department, much less outside the organization. This mindset needs to change to one in which leaders actively support career growth for the employee no matter where it leads. In fact, the first level of maturity in a career culture is allowing talent to move within the enterprise as needed for the benefit of the individual and the organization.
4. It goes bold and allows employees to fail
In a developmental culture, employees are given assignments that test their strengths and skills. They are allowed to fail and to learn from that experience without retribution. This is particularly critical for high potential talent who need stretch assignments to drive their learning. If the organization wants to be agile, then employees need to take on challenges and learn to adapt quickly. Cycling people through different functions and roles at a fairly rapid pace and exposing them to a variety of challenges will accelerate their growth and flexibility. This approach involves risk and some leaders may fail, but the hallmark of an agile organization is to make quick adjustments and address the challenge in a new way.  Paradoxically, it is often easier to succeed if you know it is okay to fail.  A culture in which vulnerability is accepted and asking for support and guidance is sign of maturity not weakness is a culture that enables people to perform to a level that may even surprise them.
One of the engines of a career development culture is the “career conversation.” This ongoing dialogue between manager and direct report is characterized by an open exchange of ideas about the employee’s career aspirations and creating win-win developmental scenarios for the individual and the organization. In my next blog, I’ll discuss the leadership skills that managers need to conduct effective career conversations.
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