For Ambitious Employees, a Viable Career Path Can Make Up for a Just-OK Manager

New data shows that growth opportunities drive employees to stay and that leadership plays a crucial role.

Reading Time: 5 min 



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

Carolyn Geason-Beissel/MIT SMR | Getty Images

In a tight labor market for talent, retaining skilled people is crucial, both to maintain an organization’s skills and capabilities and to avoid the costs and disruption of recruiting. So understanding why people stay and why they leave is important.

During the height of the pandemic, many workers hunkered down. Those who had jobs wanted to hang on, given so much uncertainty about when vaccines could be delivered or the timing of the next government lockdown. Long-term perspective-taking shrank down to day-to-day activities. When work became virtual for so many people, with a computer screen providing the only link to colleagues, managers figured high in employees’ worlds. Managers who showed empathy to their team members and were open and prepared to discuss their issues fostered committed and higher-performing teams. I described them at the time as the “thread that connects people and work.”

But as the heavy weight of the pandemic has lifted, people are beginning to ask not “What will happen to me this week?” but rather “What will happen to me in the next couple of years?” It is as if they have come out of hibernation and are planning to spread their wings. They are looking outside of their current roles to the future — and their interest is in how their careers will develop.

This is a central recent finding of Culture Amp, an employee engagement, development, and survey company that draws from data on nearly 3 million workers. There is a perceptible change in what’s driving employees’ intentions to stay. Yes, the empathy and comfort of a good manager remain a reason why people stay at companies. But it is not the most important reason. In 2021, “career opportunities” were the seventh-strongest driver of an employee’s commitment to stay; by 2023, they were the second strongest. And it is what kinds of opportunities a company has for career progression that’s top of mind.

Great Leaders Eclipse Great Direct Managers

One factor sharpening people’s focus as they think about career progression within their companies is that there are now more options outside. The market for skilled freelancers is growing fast, and that’s reducing the friction costs of shifting to freelance work and researching what other organizations and opportunities are available. Rapid developments in job-matching platforms like Upwork and Fiverr have broadened the market for contracting. In a 2023 survey, some 38% of U.S. workers reported that they had freelanced in some capacity that year — that’s 64 million, up from 60 million the year before. Organizations that are built in part around the skilled freelancers in their workforce ecosystems are emerging as a norm rather than an exception.

As people look outward to freelance opportunities and upward to development prospects in their current organization, they’re asking, “Who here is able to deliver these opportunities?”

Certainly, when it comes to forging commitment, managers can play a key role. The best managers coach their team members, nudge them to become more skillful, provide guidance about how the company works, and give them a sense of their possible options. Good managers also, through their selection competence, ensure that team members have high-performing colleagues to work with and learn from.

But — particularly following the pandemic and at a time of economic and job instability — employees sense that opportunities are determined by wider factors than a good or bad manager. Those factors include the structure of the organization, its overall growth rate, and — importantly — its economic viability. If the company fails to grow, people can see that opportunities for their own promotion will be restricted.

So while a manager can play some role in bolstering the company’s growth story or helping people plot their next moves, much of the reality of how career progression is actually created rests with company leaders. It is leaders who decide how the business is structured and how work flows. It is leaders who are ultimately responsible for its growth.

Much of the reality of how career progression is actually created rests with company leaders.

Employees understand this. Obviously, if the question is “What would you prefer: a great direct manager or a great company leader?” the answer is “Both.” Not surprisingly, the Culture Amp research found that, of the employees who report having this combination (great manager and great leader), 89% said they were committed to stay at their organization. Just as unsurprisingly, for those with both a poor manager and a poor leader, the number dropped to 22%. But here is the preference: While 38% of workers with a great manager and a poor leader said they were committed to stay, 60% of workers who reported having a poor manager and a great leader said they were committed.

That’s an astonishing difference. It shows that, yes, managers do matter (and good managers are a significant reason why people don’t job-hop). But ultimately, it is leaders who are the bigger factor in an employee’s intention to stay.

Next Steps

There are challenges for leaders who want to act on this insight. A closer look at the Culture Amp survey data shows that from 2020 to 2024, there has been a global decline in employees believing that there are good career opportunities in their companies. Why is this? Certainly, when it comes to managers, confidence has remained stable: Managers are appreciated by their direct reports when they genuinely care about employees’ well-being, give their team members useful feedback on their performance, and act as great role models. But since 2022, confidence in higher-level leaders has declined globally in three vital capabilities that support employees’ career progression: demonstrating how important people are to the company’s success, keeping people informed, and communicating a motivating vision.

It’s always been important for leaders to acknowledge and understand that their behavior and narrative play a significant role in engaging employees. But in these times of economic turbulence, this role is amplified. The best leaders understand this and are drawing their employees in by proactively aligning workers’ most crucial question (“Will I grow in this company?”) to the company vision and growth plans. By doing so, they are positioning employees’ interests to the company’s interests. For companies looking to both grow and maintain their best talent, this is a win-win for all.



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.