A significant investment is made each year on studies, training, portals, and programs related to career development; yet, the return on this investment continues to disappoint organizations, leaders and employees alike. And it’s unfortunate, because what’s needed doesn’t cost even a dollar. What’s needed to ensure healthy, sustainable career development is creativity.
“Creativity” and “career development” rarely come up in the same sentence. In fact, many organizations have inadvertently wrung a lot of creativity out of career development through the creation of complicated systems, processes, step-wise tools and forms. Yet what they’re discovering is, the more sophisticated the individual development planning process, the less creativity is actually allowed.
As a result, many managers and employees are painting by numbers when it comes to career development. They do what’s expected of them. They complete the forms. They meet the deadlines. And they continue to complain about the lack of authentic career development in their organizations.
Responsive organizations, dedicated to the engagement and well-being of employees, are struggling to address these issues and meet the needs and expectations of today’s workforce. But the inconvenient truth is that today’s environment is very different from the environment that established these expectations decades ago:
- Baby boomers are living longer and occupying key roles longer than expected, stemming the historical tide of upward opportunities.
- Flatter, leaner structures translate to fewer leadership roles—the roles that individual contributors have typically looked to for growth and development
- More fluid structures mean that former career paths are less stable and predictable. The chess game many career strategists successfully won in the past now frequently ends with moves toward roles that are no longer necessary. Or there’s suddenly a new and unexpected space on the chessboard—a new role for which they aren’t prepared.
Despite these fundamental shifts in the workplace, some organizations are trying to make career development—as it’s been understood in the past—somehow work. But many engage in unproductive and organizationally unnatural acts like:
- Paper promotions: This “creative” approach to meeting employee expectations for growth involves gaming the org chart. A sizable service organization in Asia recently promoted several individuals by changing the title of “senior manager” to “assistant director.” Same customers. Same work. Same pay.
- Silly supervisory schemes: Given the very few supervisory roles for the many individuals with an appetite for them, a technology firm in India has begun promoting tenured staff to supervisors. Most of them have one direct report (or an open headcount), creating a 1:1 individual contributor to supervisor ratio.
- Development decoys: And other organizations are getting on the “promotions aren’t the only way to grow” bandwagon. They recognize that additional projects, stretch assignments and similar development opportunities in role are the ideal alternative to promotions and moves that aren’t available anyway. The problem is that too frequently this takes the form of dumping great volumes of work on already over-burdened employees. As a result, savvy employees — the ones you want to engage, grow and retain — have developed a well-honed “nose” for extra work masquerading as “development opportunities.”
While well-intentioned, these efforts are not going to move the needle when it comes to career development. And here’s why. Most organizations responded years ago to wildly new workplace conditions with significant structural and organizational changes. The new employer/employee contract (or some may argue the lack of a contract altogether) has changed every dimension of human resource management from recruiting through compensation—except career development.
Somehow, employees and leaders alike have held on to the expectation—and hope—that career development could continue unscathed. But it’s simply not possible. As challenging as it was to establish the new workplace reality that included the loss of the lifetime employment guarantee, it’s time to establish a new reality around career development.
Does that mean that organizations must abandon career development? Absolutely not! But they must redefine what it means and how it really works today.
And many organizations are doing just that as they implement genuinely creative solutions that ensure relevant and sustainable development. Two approaches that cost nothing but can quickly shift mindsets and expectations include:
- Thinking outside of the box—the check box on the standard forms, that is. There’s a balance to be struck between the structure (required for manpower/succession planning) and the ongoing, iterative, informal, in-the-moment way people actually learn, grow and develop. Lightening the administrative load of the former frees up energy and creativity for the latter.
- Rebranding the outdated career ladder. Although the regular, predictable progression associated with the ladder metaphor went missing from many workplaces some time ago, too many employees and leaders alike still hold that image. Progressive organizations are replacing the ladder with more nimble, lateral, and reality-based models including climbing walls, jungle gyms and Tetris-style ways of thinking about how career development really works.
Everyone from the C-suite to the front lines needs to update their thinking about, expectations of, and efforts to support career development. And the shift does not require a significant financial investment. Rather, what’s necessary is the infusion of the priceless quality of creativity.