5 Career Development Essentials

Career development is a vitally important journey for employees and employers.

For employees, career development defines their work identity and income potential and significantly impacts their lifestyles.

For a majority of employers, career development impacts employee engagement and retention, and the strength of their employee value proposition, according to Brandon Hall Group’s 2018 Career Development Study. It also drives key talent processes such as learning and development, performance management, talent management, and career pathing.

Importance usually is accompanied by complexity, and that is the case with career development. While it often is considered a single subject, career development is actually a collection of conditions, strategies, and processes that must work in harmony to be effective. These include:

  • A career framework that defines and describes job roles, job families, career levels, and career streams
  • Clear, flexible, and well-communicated career paths
  • Competencies aligned with career paths
  • Performance management aligned with competencies and career paths
  • Learning programs, including Individual Learning Plans
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Enabling technology
  • Workforce planning
  • High-potential development and succession management
  • An assessment program
  • Rewards and recognition
  • A supportive corporate culture that embraces diversity and inclusion
  • A recruiting and onboarding program aligned with all of the above

This, of course, is difficult to achieve. While 70 percent of organizations have a formal career development framework of some kind, many organizations do not use all elements of the framework.

But without a complete career framework and well-defined and aligned strategies, it is difficult to create and sustain a career development program that consistently drives employee engagement and retention.

The key to breaking down these barriers is a foundational approach that:

  • Balances organization and individual employee goals
  • Aligns various talent processes
  • Leverages technology, corporate culture, governance, and measurement
  • Considers a variety of factors such as executive buy-in, external influences, change management, diversity and inclusion, and others

Improving a function as complex as career development is much easier to illustrate than it is to do. A detailed examination of every aspect of career development is beyond the scope of this article. But the research did reveal five essential steps that can jumpstart the process and establish a firm foundation for success.

  1. Develop a complete career development framework.
  2. Enable career development with technology.
  3. Develop career paths aligned with competencies.
  4. Enable employees to change careers streams or levels based on changing personal or professional priorities.
  5. Invest in career coaching.

Brandon Hall Group developed a five-phase, High-Performance Career Development Framework to illustrate these foundations (see below; the file also can be dowloaded at the end of this article).

Essential #1: Develop a Complete Career Development Framework

As stated earlier, 70 percent of organizations use some type of career framework, although most organizations are not using all elements of a framework. Creating a career framework that starts with a specific job role and doesn’t take it through a job family, career level, and career stream is like starting construction of a road and not completing it; it leads nowhere. It is just as important for organizations that start a framework to complete it.

The process of building the framework is different for every organization. The key is to take a wide lens and understand both organizational and employee goals for having a career development structure and career paths. It is then critical to involve a wide variety of stakeholders and make sure the framework aligns with the culture and there is governance in place to guide the process.

Essential #2: Enable Career Development with Technology

As noted, career development is complex and involves a collection of conditions, strategies, and processes that must work in harmony.

In even the simplest of organizations, there are many variables for creating a career development architecture and career paths. Once you align career paths with competencies in different business units and regions, and create vertical and horizontal career paths, those variables cannot be well managed manually.

This is where the wheels come off for many organizations. The research shows only 23 percent of organizations support competency development with technology and only 21 percent support career development with technology. Comparatively, 60 percent of organizations support performance management with technology, which is arguably far less complicated than career and competency development.

Technology is readily available, both as part of a suite of talent solutions or as a point solution. Organizations may think career development is important, but many look at it as a function itself rather than a complex, interwoven set of processes that defy manual management.

The small number of organizations utilizing career and competency technology have a distinct advantage over organizations that don’t. For example, we know organizations struggle to develop clear, well-communicated career paths for most employees. There is also a strong correlation between technology use for career development and increases in key business metrics. Clearly, technology is a huge differentiator in successful career development. It helps with all other elements of career development.

Essential #3: Develop Career Paths Aligned with Competencies

For career paths to resonate with employees and provide value to the employer, they must be linked to an employee’s performance. While about half of organizations still primarily determine promotions through annual performance reviews, 81 percent of organizations now align career paths with at least one of five competency types.

Aligning competencies with career paths provides a clear roadmap for employees. They can see skills they must master through experience, training, or both. They can understand whether there must be external learning through universities or associations and whether internal or external certifications are required. They can understand how long they are expected to stay in a role and the expected level of performance before they advance.

As we will discuss later, more employees don’t want to follow traditional career paths and may seek to change directions due to evolving personal or professional priorities. Seeing what that requires can impact the decision, so having competencies in place and aligning them to career paths is extremely important.

This requires wide collaboration among stakeholders and can be expensive. To make the business case, it is important to note that our research shows a strong correlation between career path-competency alignment and improved business metrics. For example, organizations with career paths aligned with at least one competency type are twice as likely to see increased year-over-year employee engagement compared to organizations without alignment.

Essential #4: Enable Employees to Change Career Streams or Levels Based on Changing Personal or Professional Priorities

In our four-generation workforce, career paths often move in untraditional ways. Personal interests affect career choices more often than previously. Organizations that design ways for employees to change direction—horizontally, vertically, or into an entirely different career stream or level—have a competitive advantage over other organizations.

Millennials often are presumed to be most likely to choose untraditional paths. But with employees working longer, Baby Boomers who want to continue working—though perhaps not at their current level, intensity, or job type—can continue to make meaningful contributions when flexible opportunities are available. Job sharing also is becoming more popular, so organizations that can identify job-sharing opportunities can gain a competitive advantage.

When designing career frameworks, it is important to avoid focusing only on the present and consider how the workforce might look in the future.

Right now, organizations that designed ways employees can move into career streams or career levels based on changing personal and professional priorities are still in the minority.

Again, developing this level of flexibility is not easy and requires resources, but there is a correlation between this flexibility and key business metrics, particularly when it comes to employee engagement.

Essential #5: Invest in Career Coaching

Our last essential is definitely not the least impactful. Research shows career coaching can have enormous benefit across the career development spectrum. Coaching has a strong positive impact in many areas: learning, performance management, leadership development, and even wellness and well-being. It is not surprising that career coaching has an impact on career development, as well. However, career coaching is not nearly as prevalent as other types. Almost one-third of organizations (32 percent) do not provide any type of career coaching.

The data show the biggest benefit from career coaching comes when it is done informally through in-the-moment and ongoing feedback, and formally, often through specially trained career counselors (either internal or external), career development portals, and targeted career development meetings.

There is a correlation between career coaching and increased business metrics, and career coaching and the average tenure of employees.

The specific reason for the broad impact is unclear, but our hypothesis is that career coaching, particularly in organizations that offer formal and informal assistance, reflects a strong cultural focus on career development. It is not just the coaching that makes the difference but the overall priority these organizations place on developing employees’ careers.

Coaching has shown to be a valuable tool in almost all areas of development, so organizations would be wise to add career coaching to their repertoire.

A Targeted Pilot Approach

Career development is a dynamic tool that can have a huge positive impact on employee engagement, talent retention, and the employee value proposition. In addition, because career development—done correctly—is tied to so many other talent processes, it can have a unifying effect that benefits the organization in many ways.

The collaboration between stakeholders, which often is discussed but remains elusive in many organizations, is critical to career development. Competencies, learning and development, performance management, workforce planning, leadership development, and succession management—among others—must work in harmony for optimal career development.

This is a huge undertaking for most organizations. But the payoff also can be huge. Most organizations embrace the concept of employee experience as a driver of employee engagement. We cannot think of another initiative that can influence employee experience more than career development.

The beauty of career development—done well—is that it is mutually beneficial for the organization and the employee: Employees get the opportunities they want, and organizations gain the skills, knowledge, and attributes aligned to business objectives they so desperately need.

Because the scope of high-performance career development is potentially so large, organizations would do well to start small. The entire career development spectrum cannot be transformed by a single effort. We recommend a targeted pilot approach to improve career development. It could be with one or a few departments or disciplines. Or perhaps in a particular region. The process, once successful, then could be shared with other groups, and the transformation can grow organically.

As always, it is best to get support from key leaders and stakeholders. Support from the top enables the buy-in and collaboration that will be needed across the enterprise.

Claude Werder is the vice president of Research Operations and principal human capital management (HCM) analyst at Brandon Hall Group. The firm’s vision is to inspire a better workplace experience, and its mission is to empower excellence in organizations around the world through its research and tools. Brandon Hall Group has five HCM practices and produces the Brandon Hall Group HCM Excellence Awards and Excellence in Technology Awards; the Women in Leadership Summit; and the annual HCM Excellence Conference, Jan. 22-25, 2019, in West Palm Beach, FL.