How To Help Build Employees’ Career Paths So They Don’t Quit

Budgets, hiring freezes, and lack of career pathways can all inhibit employee development. Here’s the workaround.

How To Help Build Employees’ Career Paths So They Don’t Quit
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American workers are worried about their career futures, and they are ready to quit if need be.


This is according to the findings of an October 2017 survey released by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, which found that nearly half of U.S. workers are worried about how their jobs are changing. And, without supervisor support for career development, less than half are motivated to do their best work.

“Job-skills training is a shared responsibility between leaders and employees,” says David Ballard, PhD, assistant executive director of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “If you want to have a healthy high-performing workplace, and if you want to succeed as a business, you have to do this.”

If you don’t, chances are your employees will jump ship. A 2015 survey by Gallup found that when 93% of Americans advanced in their careers, it was by taking a job at another company. Just 7% took on new opportunities within their current organizations. When they walked out the door, they left with institutional knowledge and a hit to their previous employers’ culture and employee morale.

But whether it’s due to hiring freezes, small development budgets, or simply not having a clear development path, many companies struggle in their effort to develop employees. The APA survey found that while 61% of employees say their employer offers development opportunities for career and soft skills they’ll need in the future, roughly half of those surveyed say they don’t have adequate time for career development activities, or that their employer doesn’t provides career development activities sufficient for advancement.

However, it doesn’t take a formal program for employees to work on the skills they’ll need to remain relevant and advance their careers. Business leaders can integrate development into everyday activities to help improve employee satisfaction and retention, while keeping their own talent pipeline full. Here’s how.


Start With Their Goals

The first step in creating an effective employee development plan is to find out about the employee’s career goals and match them with your organization’s needs, says performance improvement consultant Julie Winkler Giulioni, author of Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go. Those conversations should focus on three areas, she says:

  1. Hindsight. The employee’s background and what they have accomplished in their careers so far. “This is the baseline information you would need in order to have a development conversation with anyone,” she says.
  2. Foresight. This includes looking outward and forward at the needs of the organization, as well as asking questions like: Where is our industry going? What’s going on in the bigger picture of the world?
  3. Insight. Then, explore where the first two conversations intersect. Where do the employee’s skills and interests intersect with where the company and industry are going? Where does it make sense to focus development efforts to ensure the two are aligned? That is where the greatest satisfaction for both is going to be in the long run, she says.

Find Everyday Opportunities

Your organization likely has many opportunities on a day-to-day basis for employees to grow within their current roles, says Diane Belcher, senior director, product management at Harvard Business Publishing in Boston. In her day-to-day practice managing her team, she looks for learning opportunities everywhere. For example, when she and her team come out of a meeting, she asks them what they learned and how it can be applied to their roles, or how they can apply what they learned to better serve clients.

“Even when there’s not a budget for a formal learning program, you can think about every opportunity as an opportunity to learn. It’s about building time for reflection, time for questions, and making sure that leaders are playing the role of coaches, and sharing their stories about what they learned during the course of their career,” she says.

Ballard says that when employees do find time and resources for formal learning programs, getting the most value out of them requires workers to share information. The transfer of learning by discussing, presenting, or writing what they got from a development opportunity so it can be shared with others extends the value of the company’s investment, he says.

As many companies move to flatter organizational structures, lateral moves are becoming more popular and can be another way to build skills without taxing employees, Belcher says.


Use Career Calisthenics

Beverly Kaye, founder of Career Systems International, a Los Angeles-based career consulting firm, and coauthor of Up Is Not the Only Way: Rethinking Career Mobility, suggests using “career calisthenics”—reaching up, down, and out. That means looking for mentoring or shadowing opportunities, stretch assignments, and other learning opportunities throughout the organization.

Is there someone higher up with whom you can connect employees to work on a stretch assignment or use as a mentor? Are there opportunities for them to learn new skills from their peer group? And are there opportunities for them to mentor those who are newer to the organization? Kaye says that this type of connection throughout the organization keeps information and knowledge flowing, and creates a culture where development is not only encouraged, but expected.

“What are the short-term experiences someone on your team could experiment with?” she asks. “They can be small [experiences], and then you come back to your job.” Those experiences promote growth and keep employees interested in their new roles.

Employment attorney and HR consultant Sharon Reese, principal consultant with The Gunter Group, a Portland, Oregon, management consulting firm, says it’s also important to give people a measure of autonomy with their discretionary time so they can use it to develop key skills. One organization with which she consulted invited employee input into the board’s organizational strategy so that workers would have a say in the initiatives and programs on which they would be working. That kind of ability to control at least some of their work helped create a highly engaged workforce.

“There’s usually tremendous room to be creative around your rewards and recognitions programs,” she says. And that often includes how you let people choose where they spend at least some of their time.


Make Room To Grow

Of course, while all of these stretch assignments and extra work can be great learning opportunities, it’s important to ensure employees don’t feel like you’re simply getting extra work out of them without the trappings that come with advancement, such as new titles, raises, and bonuses.

If those aren’t in the budget, the incentive might be to take away some of their more rote work. “Managers have to be realistic as they’re inviting new responsibilities and activities into someone’s role. They have to figure out how to offload other things to make room for it so it doesn’t become punitive,” Giulioni says.

That way you can help create the job they want instead of watching them find it at another company.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites