Why Companies Should Help Every Employee Chart a Career Path
Providing career development to all employees requires a commitment to clarifying pathways for growth and giving everyone opportunities to build new skills.
Ask an HR leader whether their company is good at career development, and they will likely say that it is — and then they’ll talk about the programs they’ve designed for high-potential employees.
Ask them how well the company supports the rest of the workforce, and their answer will likely change. Some will say that they expect managers to be responsible for developing their people. Others will say that employees are empowered to “own” their own career development. The more transparent leaders might add that their approach works for some employees but not for most.
Those approaches might sound good but often don’t live up to their promise. This is a problem for companies, especially when it’s difficult to find and retain skilled employees. Leaders must do much more to help employees see a future with the company and a path to advance toward that future.
Get Updates on Transformative Leadership
Evidence-based resources that can help you lead your team more effectively, delivered to your inbox monthly.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
Fortunately, a small but growing number of companies are finding ways to improve career development for all of their interested employees. Doing this at scale does not require the same level of investment that the company provides to its high-potential future leaders. It does, however, require the use of modern tools and a coherent approach that helps employees see a path forward, learn and practice the competencies they need, and receive solid feedback and coaching along the way.
In this article, we’ll share insights from a survey of more than 1,000 workers and interviews with talent and learning leaders at more than 25 organizations who are figuring this out.
Let’s Stop Kidding Ourselves
It’s convenient for senior executives who make decisions on HR policies and investments to delegate employee development to line managers or to spin a lack of organizational support as empowering employees to own their professional growth paths. Yet neither course is a very effective solution to a problem that requires a more systematic approach.
Requiring managers to support career development as well as performance is by far the most common approach taken in organizations. Unfortunately, even the best-intentioned managers may not know what growth paths are available beyond the function or division they know best. And then there are the managers who don’t give mentoring enough attention, mentor only their favorites, or hoard talent by discouraging their best workers from exploring other options. Furthermore, employees may fear being penalized for disloyalty if they ask their current boss about potential roles outside of their unit. So while the company can say that every manager is responsible for supporting employees’ career development, and the process works for some employees, most get much less help than they need.
Asking workers to own their own professional growth can sound good to the senior executives who approve HR investments and manage others in leadership roles. After all, these leaders are exactly the types of people who have been able to own their own careers. They are talented, hardworking, and ambitious people who were willing to go the extra mile to get ahead. They may or may not remember the help they got along the way through high-potential training programs, a great boss or mentor, or a leader who hired them based on potential when they weren’t quite qualified for the job. Unfortunately, when bosses believe a self-service approach will work for everybody, it’s tempting to blame the employee and not the process when it doesn’t work.
Given the prevalence of the two approaches we’ve described here, we weren’t surprised to find that many workers feel that they need better support for career development. The individual contributors we surveyed were much more likely than executives and managers to say that a lack of good career advice has hurt their career (49% versus 35%). Two-thirds (67%) said advancing their careers is very important, and a quarter of respondents believe they will be more likely to do so at a different employer.
This represents a crisis for companies seeking to find and hold on to talent. In fact, in a Pew Research survey, 63% of people who changed jobs in 2021 cited a lack of advancement opportunities as a reason.1 And a 2022 McKinsey study noted that a lack of career development and advancement was the most common reason given for quitting a previous job.2
What’s more, the landscape has become more challenging. Much more attention is going to lateral or diagonal opportunities — a career lattice — rather than just climbing a particular career ladder. More than a third (35%) of respondents to our survey said their next job will take them off their current career path. Yet, according to research from Willis Towers Watson, only 29% of employers outlined lateral career paths, and only 33% provided beyond-the-job growth experiences, such as job shadowing and rotational assignments.3
Building a Coherent System for Broader Career Development
Most companies know what is required for career development: They’re already doing it in their high-potential leadership programs. These often costly programs typically offer detailed assessments, special training opportunities, stretch assignments, network building, and regular coaching. Together, they create a mutually reinforcing system of three key elements: visibility into opportunities and paths, the means to learn and practice, and rich feedback and coaching.
In our research, we encountered few examples of companies providing all three elements of the career development triad for workers not classified as high potential. However, we did see several examples of companies making progress on each of the three elements, and we’ll describe how they can integrate the elements into a career development system that works at scale.
Make opportunities and pathways visible. Employees can’t explore growth opportunities that they can’t see. Often, even the HR people don’t know what is available or what is possible for workers — especially across regions or lines of business. Many big companies have “already set up for both ends of the supply and the demand, but there’s just no visibility between the two,” said Julie Dervin, global head of talent at Atlassian and former head of global learning and development at Cargill.4 “You may have a business sitting in North America and have no idea that your sister or brother business over in China or the Netherlands is in search of a certain set of skills for a certain project. There’s no visibility there to match that up.” An HR leader at another company said it more directly: “When we need skills for certain positions, we go outside. There are tools and resources to go externally and find a skill. It’s easier than looking internally.”
Visibility alone isn’t enough. Internal job postings may highlight skills an employee doesn’t have, without providing clarity on how to bridge the gaps. HR professionals, managers, and employees must all understand which opportunities are relevant, given a specific set of experiences and skills. “You have to do a really good job of deconstructing that work so that you can tell the story of, ‘Hey, this is why this role actually is transferable,’ ” said Christopher Lind, vice president and chief learning officer at ChenMed.
GE Digital has an online tool called Career Discovery. Once employees enter their capabilities and interests, it shows them other roles in the company that might be a fit for them, even if those opportunities are not on their current career ladder. The tool also shows competencies employees might need to gain and where to look for training opportunities.
Internal job postings may highlight skills the employee doesn’t have, without providing clarity on how to bridge the gaps.
This “push” rather than “pull” approach is important. “If you’re somebody that doesn’t ask questions and maybe is a little bit more passive, most likely you’ll start to look externally because there isn’t transparent visibility into opportunities,” said Lyndsey Havill-Cochrun, area vice president for people insights at BetterUp.
At the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), a $24 billion health care provider and insurer with 92,000 staff members, HR works closely with leadership to establish dozens of career paths. “And yet much of that information was kept within HR,” said Tony Gigliotti, senior director of talent management and organizational development. “This information wasn’t as easily accessible to the employee as we’d like. Now, through technology, we are transparently sharing both vertical career paths and alternative roles.” UPMC recently launched the Explore Careers tool for every employee through its cloud-based HR system. “Employees can log in and see ‘Where did people go who were in my role? What roles are in my job family, and who is in those roles?’ ” With that intelligence, employees can choose to contact people in specific roles to learn more, or they can review available job postings for those roles.
Unilever offers Discover Your Purpose workshops to help employees reflect on their experiences and goals and then create development plans for the next six to 18 months. Based on their plans, employees can access a variety of internal and external resources to build skills and certify their expertise.5
If informal networks are diverse enough, they can also help uncover new opportunities. When employees get to know people in other roles, they can make better choices about what’s possible in their own careers. They can use these networks to explore a job change with people who are already in those roles — to understand what the job is like, how their skills and interests align, and how hard it might be to bridge the gap. These networks can also help a manager get comfortable with the idea of hiring an internal transfer who needs a growth opportunity rather than onboarding an external candidate who appears to already have the necessary skills.
So companies should help employees develop broader networks — just as they do with cohorts in high-potential programs. Accenture teaches in global classrooms, where learners from numerous countries work together on case studies, simulations, and group projects. At DBS Bank, employees are encouraged to share their expertise in peer learning sessions, and they build new connections through the sessions they teach and attend. As many employees have shifted to remote work, targeted global collaboration opportunities such as these have become possible in virtually every company.
Provide opportunities to learn and practice. While visibility into potential new roles is important, it is not enough. Employees need ways to learn the different skills required by their new roles.
Companies should help employees develop broader networks — just as they do with cohorts in high-potential programs.
Global financial services company Allianz uses its learning platform to match required skill sets for specific positions to the skills an individual already possesses. “Our state-of-the-art global learning platform recommends trainings and other learning opportunities to our employees based on their individual skills and learning preferences, supported by AI,” said Renate Wagner, member of the board of management responsible for the Asia-Pacific region, mergers and acquisitions, and human resources. “This also contributes to strengthening key competences and skills in Allianz, for example, with regard to data and IT.”
UPMC defined learning pathways for five types of employees: new employees who need to onboard effectively into their roles, existing employees who want to gain additional expertise, aspiring leaders, new leaders, and current leaders. Each pathway focuses on developing professional skills for role success and personal skills to enhance well-being. According to Jessica Buechli, senior director of learning and development, “Technology bundles each learning pathway, and the employee can easily enroll into a pathway and follow it at their own pace.”
Outlining paths and courses that can teach key skills is a good start, but employees also need to practice their new skills, especially for jobs outside of their current chain of command, and to reflect on the experience. Through practice, individuals make progress and learn from mistakes. Reflecting on both can help them continually advance toward their goal of learning a specific skill. Employees at UBS and DBS Bank practice learning through games, simulations, or projects. Customer support representatives at Fidelity Investments can learn a new skill in the morning, practice it in live customer calls (with a manager observing) in the afternoon, and then reflect on the experience with others who are learning the same skill. Northeastern University is piloting a program with employers to design real-world class projects that are directly relevant to each student-employee’s particular context. An accounting student can take on some budgeting or forecasting tasks for their boss, for instance, or a machine learning student can solve a problem for another unit of the company, opening potential doors to move into a new role.
Stretch assignments are another good way to provide practice opportunities. These do not need to entail changing jobs — at least not at first. However, just as companies need to provide visibility into full-time opportunities across the organization, success depends on the employee, or their manager, knowing how to find these assignments.
Formal rotational programs can play a useful role, and some companies include them for new hires or in high-potential leadership programs. However, this type of intentional support for changing roles is much less common for most employees, and we have not seen such programs at scale for experienced workers.
Helping employees explore new opportunities is in a company’s own best interests. While it may seem easier and less risky to hire skills externally than to take a chance on developing an internal candidate, such an approach can exacerbate talent gaps. Ignoring internal candidates shrinks the pool of potential applicants for open slots while also making current employees feel that they must look outside for opportunities. UPMC is addressing this challenge by helping managers see the opportunity in internal hiring. The company recently expanded the employee self-evaluation, which is part of the annual performance review, with questions aimed at better understanding an employee’s career intentions. Now, employees can outline their career goals, as well as the resources, tools, and education that they’ll need to achieve those goals. This feedback will catalyze career conversations between the employee and their leader and, ultimately, open a safe space for employees to explore their career opportunities within the organization.
Other organizations are using technology to match workers, managers, and tasks in an internal marketplace, but hiring managers have to be open to adopting this approach. In 2018, Schneider Electric launched an open talent market where managers can list opportunities for short-term projects, full-time positions, or mentorships, and workers can engage with the ones that interest them. The short-term assignments and mentorships enable employees to try out stretch roles and determine whether they might be a good fit for a future full-time role. Managers embraced the marketplace during the pandemic, when they weren’t able to hire people for projects that needed to be done.6 The internal marketplace also reduces risk for managers, who gain access to a diverse pipeline of employees they can get to know on short-term projects before committing to hiring them long term.
Deliver rich feedback and coaching. Providing performance feedback is an essential part of learning. Employees gain the opportunity to hone their skills when they can see more clearly what they are doing well and where they can improve.
Pernod Ricard implemented a program in 2018 called Let’s Talk Talent. The program repositions the performance management process with the employee at the center, and managers functioning as developers and career coaches. Employees are able to create a talent profile that includes “their career history, what they’ve achieved, and where they want to go,” said Lani Montoya, senior vice president of HR for Pernod Ricard NA. That person’s manager as well as the global talent management team can see this and discuss the person’s future with them. The expectation is that such conversations happen regularly, “but we know for sure that they happen on an annual basis as part of our performance management process.” And if the employee is not getting enough career advice from their manager, they can go to the global talent team for guidance.
“Good companies make sure people managers are very clear that part of their role is to have career conversations with their employees,” said Dervin. This includes understanding what their employees’ career aspirations are and being able to counsel and guide them in how to develop the skills they need — “either to perform more effectively in their current role or to start building skills that will set them up for their next role,” she said.
Telling managers to do it and ensuring that they do it well are two different things. It’s up to HR not only to establish the policies but also to ensure that managers are able to implement those policies effectively. Just asking a manager to document that career discussions took place is not enough. HR should also ask employees how they feel about the help they’re getting from their managers.
While employees need feedback and coaching for their careers, managers may need feedback and coaching on their own coaching abilities. “Even the best-intentioned leaders need help and support,” said UPMC’s Gigliotti. “Along with our HR and learning and development colleagues, my team works with people leaders to design approaches to developing and retaining critical talent. Supervisors are fearful of losing talent, especially with the Great Resignation affecting so many industries, including health care.”
UPMC implemented check-in tools to help facilitate the feedback process. With the Anytime Check-in, anyone can easily send feedback to anyone else in the organization at any time — for example, after working with someone on a project or seeing a colleague make a noteworthy contribution. They can make the comments visible to only the employee or to the employee’s supervisor as well. In addition, supervisors can maintain their own private notes using Anytime Check-in and then reference them at annual review time. Meanwhile, employees can get honest feedback in real time from peers as well as bosses.
Putting the Elements Together
Our research showed that many companies are implementing pieces of the career development triad but that few have integrated the three into a successful employee development system at scale.
One company that has is Amsted Industries, a global, diversified manufacturer of industrial components for rail, commercial vehicle, automotive, and construction and building applications. The company’s career development framework, which each business unit customizes for its context, is designed to give each white-collar worker two types of reviews regularly. The first is typically a discussion between the employee and their manager about performance in the current role. The second is a formal development review and mentoring process led by a senior business manager who is a peer of the employee’s manager but not in the employee’s direct management chain.
The company takes this process seriously; leaders are evaluated not only on the performance of their team but also on their development of specific people outside of their teams. In addition to regular informal discussions with their development manager, the employees have a formal development meeting every year with a committee that includes their direct manager, their development manager, and those managers’ bosses. The employee discusses their career objectives, their plan for development, what they’ve achieved toward their plan, and the support they need to take their next steps. After that interactive discussion gives the committee a better understanding of the employee’s goals, the employee leaves and the committee members discuss what will best help that person get there.
The committee develops a draft plan for career advancement, which the development manager takes to the employee. The employee has the ability to reject or accept the plan. If it’s accepted, the leaders assign coaches and mentors as applicable and work with the employee to finalize the details.
This process facilitates horizontal development and talent sharing as well, given the involvement of the manager’s peers. If an employee expresses interest in a different function, another manager might have a project they can get involved with. This is not purely altruistic; the peer managers benefit by having someone from outside their unit offer to help with a project. In addition, the company ensures its commitment to the process through peer accountability among development committee members and by making development performance an important part of each manager’s own performance rating, alongside the performance of their unit.
You might not feel your company can invest as much as Amsted has to help employees develop their careers. But that shouldn’t stop you from building stronger career development processes where possible. One place to look is positions that are the hardest to fill or have the highest turnover risk, where the return on investing in career development will likely be more apparent.
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in Boston routinely grows people from low-skill nonmedical roles into higher-skill and higher-paid medical ones that are difficult to fill but do not require years of academic training. BIDMC identifies internal candidates who have been strong performers and offers them a chance for a better-paid role with a better career ladder, such as a central processing technician, medical lab technician, or medical coder. BIDMC works with a local community college to provide training aligned with the employee’s work hours. It also pays for the training and helps to coach and support the employee along the way.
It’s a win-win arrangement for employer and employee. BIDMC has now systematized the approach more broadly, with a goal that no employee will be stuck in a job that’s not going to lead anywhere. Six months after an employee starts working at BIDMC, they receive an email prompting them to start thinking about their career with the organization. It lists all of the opportunities that are available and encourages them to connect with the workforce development office to learn more.
It’s possible to help employees develop in their careers without breaking the bank, forcing them to have awkward conversations with bosses who may not want to help, or telling them to do it on their own. But it requires a systemic approach. We’ve shared examples of companies that are making progress in that direction. They are not just creating stand-alone tools and processes. They are linking those elements into a self-reinforcing tripartite system that can help every employee develop without overburdening HR budgets or managers’ time. This intentional approach to career development is good for the employees and for the companies that employ them.
1. K. Parker and J.M. Horowitz, “Majority of Workers Who Quit a Job in 2021 Cite Low Pay, No Opportunities for Advancement, Feeling Disrespected,” Pew Research Center, March 9, 2022, www.pewresearch.org.
2. A. De Smet, B. Dowling, B. Hancock, et al., “The Great Attrition Is Making Hiring Harder. Are You Searching the Right Talent Pools?” McKinsey Quarterly, July 13, 2022, www.mckinsey.com.
3. Willis Towers Watson’s 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study surveyed more than 2,000 companies globally, including 441 from the U.S.
4. Dervin is an editorial adviser to MIT Sloan Management Review.
5. W.R. Kerr, E. Billaud, and M.F. Hjortshoej, “Unilever’s Response to the Future of Work,” Harvard Business School case no. 820-104 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, April 2020).
6. D. Kiron, J. Schwartz, R. Jones, et al., “Create a Crisis Growth Plan: Start With Opportunity Marketplaces,” Sloan Management Review, June 23, 2020, https://sloanreview.mit.edu; and M. Schrage, J. Schwartz, D. Kiron, et al., “Opportunity Marketplaces: Aligning Workforce Investment and Value Creation in the Digital Enterprise,” MIT Sloan Management Review, April 28, 2020, https://sloanreview.mit.edu.