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Why career development opportunities are non-negotiable

Professional development and career opportunities have become one of the key non-negotiables of what employees expect of a great employer. Our latest blog looks at how organisations can offer effective career development strategies to employees.

Talking about employee experience to friends, colleagues and clients, one of the key non-negotiables of what they expect of a great employer is professional development and career opportunities. And from The Team’s employee value proposition work with many organisations, a clear promise on development and opportunities is something employees consistently request in focus groups and interviews.

Development, or the lack of development opportunities, also crops up time and again in critical ex-employee reviews of organisations on sites such as Glassdoor and Indeed. And there are several academic studies that show professional development is a major focus in attracting and retaining high-quality employees.

So, while many employees are looking for development opportunities, there are several challenges for an organisation creating a suitable professional development strategy in the 21st century.

Many large organisations are in the midst of downsizing and de-layering their businesses, seeking cost efficiencies and to benefit from technological advances. As a result, many companies don’t give clear enough messages around development and career pathways, owing to uncertainty about the future, the need to frequently restructure elements of their business, and a consequent reticence around raising promotion expectations.

Some employees have seen the writing on the wall and taken matters into their own hands.  Acknowledging the context for careers in the 21st century is one of uncertainty, globalisation and the death of a career being lived out in one organisation, many individuals are taking control of their own development and making their own opportunities.

In recent times, several theories have been developed and widely normalised to characterise the contemporary career from an individual perspective:

  • Protean – a focus on adaption and change, self-management and personal values
  • Boundaryless – a focus on the collapse of the traditional career, validation from outside the workplace, work/life balance
  • Intelligent – competency-based; knowing why (attitudes, motivators, identity), knowing who (networking and relationships), knowing how (career management skills, expertise and knowledge).

And these theories have found their way into conversations around careers today. As the story goes, individuals want to “self-manage” their careers, making the most of what has been dubbed their “career capital”; the sum total of their knowledge, abilities and expertise gleaned from various positions and organisations. They seek out their own development opportunities, suitable mentors, and identify and meet their own learning requirements in order to future-proof their careers.

Table: Differences between Traditional and Protean careers

Traditional Protean
Who’s in charge Organisation Individual
Core values Advancement, security Freedom, growth
Degree of mobility Low High
Success criteria Position, level, pay Psychological success
Key attitudes Organisational commitment Work satisfaction, professional commitment

So, while losing great employees has always had the power to shock organisations, these days there’s an even more pressing reason for companies to worry. When employees leave, they take highly valuable cultural, social, sector and operational knowledge with them. The very knowledge, skills and abilities which companies need to thrive and be agile in today’s unpredictable environment.

While career self-management has been influential in the career theory in recent years, many individuals still look to the organisation as a partner in developing their career over time.

Many companies want and say they have effective development paths for employees, but at key points it can break down. For example, in Managing Careers in Large Organisations, Hirsh and Jackson point out that relying on immediate line managers to lead the career conversation means that it tends to be lumped in with an annual appraisal and perhaps pay discussion – which is rarely effective.

They also point out the flaws in having a manager as the main enabler in an organisational career as employees may not wish to “rock the boat” and talk about moving on within the company, and perhaps more fatally, managers often have a limited view of career options.

Having internal job boards can also be less effective than imagined, as employees still need to have a realistic career plan to develop their skills towards the jobs they desire going forward. As a result, Hirsh and Jackson have pointers for organisations who want to offer effective careers development:

  1. Offer a clear deal to employees around development – what the organisation is offering them and what it expects in return.
  2. Commit to making the best use of employees’ abilities, helping them best understand the organisation and the career paths within it, and enable and encourage lateral moves.
  3. Provide better frameworks for manager and individual career discussions and ensure line managers have a clear understanding of their role in terms of staff development.
  4. Develop self-help career planning tools to help employees reflect on their skills, hopes and career plans. And offer secondments and lateral movements into new areas.
  5. Make development the responsibility of one person in the leadership team and ensure they work with different parts of the business and a variety of employees to inform the strategy.
  6. Be aware that some groups of employees, e.g. women, BAME employees and part-time workers may be just as disadvantaged in the internal job market as the external one and so design processes to level the playing field.

While career self-management has been influential in the career theory in recent years, many individuals still look to the organisation as a partner in developing their career over time. Indeed, career self-management itself may have been overstated.

Several studies have shown that there has been an overemphasis on individual agency – do people really have the opportunity to self-manage careers? And while the idea of the portfolio career has been normalised as the new status quo it does not adequately describe the experience that many people are looking for. And that’s where organisations can step in to provide the support, options and enablement their best people may well be looking for.

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