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How leaders can help their people see career ladders differently

The cofounder of 15Five says that empowerment does embrace some aspects of ‘moving up the ladder’ and the accompanying titles and salary increases that mark success, but it is much more heavily focused on passion.

How leaders can help their people see career ladders differently
[Source photos: kieferpix/iStock; Robert Bye/Unsplash]

The concept of career ladders has changed, especially since the pandemic.

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But career ladders are not broken. They just aren’t enough.

Businesses are faced with a challenge that shows no signs of stopping: How to recruit and keep the best talent. Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms individuals are leaving their jobs in record numbers. People are looking for more than a paycheck. They are seeking to contribute skills and talents to a mission they believe in and a company that supports their personal and professional development. This is why career ladders by themselves are not enough. Along with creating a compelling mission and a vision and the values that help your team win, you must also provide the tools that allow your employees to develop and grow—in their careers and as human beings. 

The creative innovation economy requires a different approach to human resources, talent management, and leadership than the 20th century hierarchical “be quiet and do your job” model. Leaders must provide tools for employees to gain self-awareness, which includes strengths discovery and the ability for employees to map their goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) to those strengths and the work that energizes them.

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In short, it requires empowering your people.

Empowering people does embrace some aspects of “moving up the ladder” and the accompanying titles and salary increases that mark success, but it’s much more heavily focused on passion. When people know what they love to do, and those contributions are aligned with what the organization needs, the business wins in terms of engagement, morale, retention, and hitting those ever-crucial performance metrics to keep growing and serving customers.

Employees can’t just follow a script. They are required to be change-makers—individuals who will challenge the status quo and bring high levels of creativity to their job. This won’t come from employees who have checked out, don’t care about the company’s mission, or aren’t connected to their strengths. It requires individuals who bring their best selves to their jobs, have a personal stake in seeing their projects succeed, and give it their all to make that happen. The craft they are pursuing is deeply aligned with who they are, what they care about, their passions, and their strengths.

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If we, as business leaders, support people in their journey to become their best selves, those people are, as a byproduct, going to perform extraordinarily well. In fact, we all need to be learning, growing, and developing to become our best selves if we are going to have a shot at staying competitive. We need to embrace our empathy and humanity if we’re going to have the kinds of positive relationships and trust that are required for us to work together as a high-performing team.

Here are a few recommendations to get there.

Start with managers

Your managers need to drive the people-empowerment process.  Manager training is key. Encourage your managers to function as a coach and follow this paradigm with their team: “My job here is to produce the results. And the way I’m going to do that is by ensuring you are set up to rapidly step into your skill set and growth. Know that I’ve got your back, but I’m also going to hold you accountable.”

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Put tools in place that help facilitate the process

The tools used should facilitate the right conversations and help build trust and psychological safety. They should help with training both the hard and soft skills. They should also provide the opportunity for the manager and the employee to learn about each other—discoveries shared to kick off that relationship—and how to effectively work together.

Leverage that ancient tool: the question

Questions are so powerful. They are also an under-appreciated tool.

As managers and leaders, we can use questions to help our employees with self-reflection. Have employees inventory all the things they do in a week, then answer these questions: “What are the things that give you energy?” “What are the things that drain you of energy?” Their answers are important clues for identifying where they should be spending more time, where they should be delegating tasks, or when they should change their role.

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Understand that empowerment can be messy

We are dealing with humans, after all.

Not every employee will want to self-reflect. It’s important to encourage the process, especially as part of reviewing one’s own performance. Emphasize that the outcome provides long-term benefits to the employee’s career path and the company’s growth.

An employee or two might leave your company because they realize they are on the wrong path, or there simply will not be internal opportunities that are aligned with their strengths and the development of their best selves. Departures for these reasons are good for the company. An employee who is not aligned with his job is probably not the highest performer in that role.

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The people-empowerment approach creates an environment where there is a true win-win between employers and employees. Employers benefit from high performance and loyalty, and employees get a sense of achieving their potential, learn more about their own strengths, and feel the joy of having their work aligned with those strengths. The ancillary benefit is that you are crafting a culture where people are excited to be there and are doing great things—together.


David Hassell is cofounder and CEO of 15Five, the human-centered performance management platform that creates effective managers, highly engaged employees, and top-performing organizations.


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