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4 Strategies for Creating a Culture of Career Growth

Career development is a bit of a dance. It’s about getting people to where they want to be and where the organization needs them to be. The benefits of getting it right go beyond turning around low employee survey scores, reducing turnover, increasing engagement, or becoming an employer of choice. It can yield sustainable high performance and organizational agility, powered by a line-up of top talent who can be successful in new roles with minimal learning curves.

Creating a culture of continuous career growth improves the odds that your workforce will be willing, ready, and able to move into the roles that you need them to play.

Here are four strategies to make it happen.

1. Prioritize conversation above information.

Research consistently shows that people don’t find inanimate resources and tools particularly valuable. (In fact, well-intentioned libraries stuffed with career resources can be overwhelming.) Instead, when people talk about pivotal career influences, they mention former managers or mentors, colleagues, career coaches, family members, and even training sessions where they’ve exchanged ideas and received advice.

How can you encourage the type of career-focused dialogue that people need? Start with your managers. Your managers, by the nature of their jobs, sit at the intersection of what employees want and what you need. They should already be having goal-setting and performance conversations with their teams. Encourage them to add career growth to the mix. Those conversations don’t need to be formal sit-downs or result in buttoned-up plans. They do need to explore questions like:

  • What are your interests and goals?
  • What type of work engages you?
  • How do you want to grow?
  • What do you enjoy most about your role?
  • What aspects of the business do you want to learn more about?
  • Where do you think you can add more value?

The outcomes: Managers can better align employee interests with organizational goals and employees will gain clarity on their career drivers.

2. Highlight stories not paths.

Part of the dance aspect of career development is that many people want a clear idea of what’s next, but organizations don’t work that way anymore. If you try to create defined career paths, today’s rapid pace of change may force a redesign as soon as you’re done.

What’s the alternative? Share career journeys. Encourage people from different backgrounds and at all levels of the organization to describe the motivators, twists, turns, and setbacks of their career journeys. Their stories can be posted as videos, podcasts, or written profiles. In-person or virtual career panels, employee resource groups, and other types of career communities can provide forums for sharing.

The outcomes: Employees realize that every career journey is unique. They obtain ideas for taking control of their own career growth and they expand their thinking about career possibilities.

3. Focus on opportunities, not career.

When people express dissatisfaction about career opportunities, the need behind the need may not be a clear path, more money, new title, or their boss’s job. It may be about new challenges, more flexibility, or skill development. Our career research indicates that most people are comfortable staying in a role if they keep adding to their portfolio of skills and experiences. And our engagement research suggests that people care most about the work itself – how it challenges them, provides meaning, and fits into their personal lives.

What’s the implication for you? Refine your career narrative. Define your organization’s career point of view (and related roles and responsibilities). Underscore your commitment to providing employees with opportunities to grow and make a meaningful impact. Publicize all forms of talent mobility, not just promotions. Recognize achievements and growth, not tenure.

The outcome: More conversations will focus on helping employees find the work they want to do while making sure it’s the very work that will move your organization forward.

4. Drive accountability for people development, not just results.

This strategy relates to the one above and reflects the “When people express dissatisfaction about career opportunities it may not be about an unclear career path, more money, new title, or their boss’s job.” adage. What metrics do your leaders track? Do they talk to their people about project timelines and deliverables alone? If development isn’t a part of those conversations, it won’t happen on the scale that you need. The workplace is transforming at too rapid a pace for you to rely on a buy-not-build approach to your talent pipeline.

The good news? There are many options for professional development besides classroom training: elearning, collaborative digital learning, and facilitated virtual workshops. Of course, those are formal development examples. Equip managers to coach their people, provide stretch assignments, enable peer coaching, and share talent with other teams in support of career growth. So set team development goals for your managers.

The outcome: Development will move up the list of priorities and actually occur. 

Why This Is About Culture

Culture is the way we do things. It’s not an initiative. When the strategies above are in place, conversations about career growth happen regularly. Employees will be more aligned with what the organization needs – and leaders will understand employees’ values, interests, skills, and goals. The result: people will be better prepared to take ownership of their careers in a way that fuels the organization’s success, not just their personal goals.  And leaders won’t be making talent plans in a vacuum.

About the Authors

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Mary Ann Masarech

Mary Ann Masarech spent the first third of her career writing, designing, and marketing skills training for top-notch consulting firms. She acquired a broad base of instructional design and client experience building learning experiences in sales, negotiations, account management, customer service, selection interviewing and leadership skills. The programs she designed were all about the “how.” (When “X” happens, do “A, B, C.”) When she joined GP Strategies’ BlessingWhite division in 2000, Mary Ann began to explore worlds beyond skills: The internal workings of individual learners – expressed as personal values and goals, the puzzling workings of organizational culture, and the often complicated dynamics of trust and relationships at work. She quickly realized there was no going back. As Lead Consultant for BlessingWhite’s Engagement Practice, Mary Ann creates practical tools and strategies that clients worldwide apply to create successful businesses and thriving workplaces. Think of her approach as "research meets real world." She is passionate about great days at work – where individuals experience the highest levels of personal satisfaction, apply their skills to what matters most, and deliver their best work to drive their employers’ strategies. As lead consultant, she also works with senior HR and business leaders on how to take meaningful action on engagement survey results to drive organizational performance. She is co-author of The Engagement Equation: Leadership Strategies for an Inspired Workforce (Wiley, Oct 2012), has written numerous research reports and articles, and is a well-regarded speaker on the leader’s role in engagement and building a culture of engagement. Mary Ann's commitment to meaningful lives and meaningful work extends beyond her day job. She is a founding member of the Norma Pfriem Urban Outreach Initiatives, a not-for-profit that addresses food insecurity (serving 10,000 meals a year) and education of underserved adults and children. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University. She enjoys her mostly-empty nest with her husband, 2 cats and a dog, cooking, reading and running (not simultaneously) in her spare time.