Career development ain’t what it used to be. Success meant a linear climb to the top of one’s profession or employer. Though some organizations have embraced a flexible approach to career development, we are just scratching the surface.
Most companies still operate on a one-size-fits-all approach. The workplace is still ruled by job descriptions, skills, and the assumption that most employees are alike and driven by similar goals and objectives.
Career change is the new normal
Whether it’s changing industries or starting a completely new profession, job hopping is rising (and not just among millennials). In 2014, a CareerBuilder survey showed that 45% of employees planned to stay with their employer for less than two years. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that half of all workers stay for less than 4.2 years.
There’s not a clear consensus on what is considered a career change though. But there’s one common thread we found from our online poll: people are not very happy with their current job or they’re just doing OK, but unsure of what’s next.
Statistics aside, I hear this frustration first hand when facilitating team workshops. There’s a growing need for most employees to uncover what’s next in their careers. Even those who are doing OK with their jobs what to find something more exciting. Others are simply done with both their jobs and careers and want to start over.
Whatever the career stage and motivation is, there’s something almost everyone agrees with: their current managers (or employers) are not very helpful.
Why people leave
“Why are you leaving? Why did you take your new job?” The reason why people quit their job is not the same as why they take a new one. I learned this by asking these two questions for over two decades.
Employees leave jobs when they can’t “suck it up” any longer and choose one that will allow them to grow. People leave managers, not jobs. Unhappy bosses make unhappy employees. Managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement according to Gallup.
Research from IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute says turnover isn’t always due to managers. See “Surprise! Most People Leave Companies, Not Managers”
Also, most professionals believe it’s easier to find a better job somewhere else than with their current employer. But advancement doesn’t always mean upward mobility; 40% of jobseekers in a Future Workplace study said it was difficult or very difficult to make a lateral move at their most recent organization. Those who want to experiment with their careers, believe that the solution lies outside too.
Employees want to learn more. And, to be challenged. They don’t just want professional development; they want to grow personally too. People expect their organizations to provide them with space and tools to help them discover “what’s next.”
Redefining careers in an era of uncertainty
When everything was predictable, mastering certain skills and loyalty were rewarded above all. But static knowledge can easily become a barrier to succeed in an ever-changing world. The most successful teams adapt to change, rather than stick to how things used to work.
Uncertainty is the new rule. Jobs are disappearing, life expectancy is increasing; disruption is affecting every industry. Both employers and employees need to embrace a more fluid mindset when it comes to career planning. Oxford University estimates that 47% of jobs will disappear in the next 25 years. That’s why young people are prioritizing “earning and learning” over starting or finishing their post-secondary education.
However, most companies still operate like everything is predictable. They apply a paternalist approach — “I know what’s best for you” — rather than helping employees deal with an uncertain career world. People want to be in charge of their own careers but also expect more active coaching from their employers. Organizations should help them uncover what’s next for them even if that means they will end up leaving.
Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Well, organizations need to understand that they don’t control people. Employees will leave either way because they are not excited about their current jobs. By providing the right space and tools, you can help them fall in love again with their careers. Providing the right coaching helps (re)ignite the fire with their current job.
Many employees feel stuck at work for different reasons. Top performers feel that the opportunities they are being offered don’t challenge them. Those that are getting close to retirement need a new challenge; there’s a win-win opportunity here too.
Organizations need to shift from a job-focused to a people-centered career planning. This means adapting the position to the person, rather than the other way around. Stop looking for the ideal candidate; focus on liberating people’s potential instead. How we use titles limits people’s potential rather than enabling possibilities, as I explained here.
Most people don’t need opportunities or new positions. They need help to understand what they want:
- Meaning-driven: People want to do work that connects to their purpose. However, 50% of Americans don’t find meaning at work. Employees who derive meaning from their work outperform others; showing 1.7 X higher job satisfaction and 1.4 X higher engagement with their career.
- Uncovering: Applying human-centered design and empathy research, we organizations can help employees reconnect with their purpose as well as discover what’s next. Understand what really moves people rather than try to find what position is the right for them.
- Fluid mobility: Companies realize that moving up is no longer the only way to grow. The need to be challenged, to learn something new, and doing meaningful work is opening more possibilities. Many might seek a new profession, not just to switch departments.
- Multifaceted: Careers are no longer linear and predictable. Taking a sabbatical to study, or stepping down from a position to focus on what matters most is becoming a frequent practice. Also, the future is not the only thing uncertain; people’s desires and interests change through time.
Five ways to improve career development
1. Create a safe space for dialogue — Transparency and psychological safety are critical to promoting honest conversations. It’s not easy for employees to tell their manager that they don’t know what’s next. When one part is afraid of speaking up, don’t expect a relationship to go anywhere. How does your organization coach managers to have these conversations? How do you as a leader promote trust and honest conversation? Most managers realize how bad people felt once they are about to leave.
2. Help people reconnect with their purpose — People used to manage their careers on autopilot. The world is full of possibilities. Pausing and reflect on what drives someone now, not when they started their career is a life-changing experience. Even a simple exercise like drawing their career journey map reveals unexpected insights about the highs and lows of someone’s career. It also helps them reconnect with their purpose and realize they shouldn’t manage their career on cruise control.
3. Prepare managers to be more adaptive — Being more adaptive is not just an HR thing, managers need to adopt that mindset too. They need to involve more, be more empathetic, and learn to embrace collaboration not control. Managers should spend more time understanding what drives their team. That will save them the time they waste dealing with everyone’s frustration. Bosses need to stop protecting their turf and let employees explore new paths even if it’s not convenient for them. Companies can train managers to become mentors and help people explore new career paths. Maybe coaching and inspiring other teams, not just theirs. Their experience and personal journey are underutilized assets.
4. Help repurpose skills and experience — Updating skills and learning new ones is essential to stay up to date. But, that’s not the biggest challenge. How can employees leverage what they know and what they are good at to do something different? Most people — and their managers — limit their potential because they get stuck in what they know.
5. Provide space for experimentation — Allow people to “taste and try before they buy.” Shadowing other employees or creating internal apprenticeships are just some of the examples of how people can experience first-hand what it entails to do other jobs. Especially, when they are completely disconnected to what people have done in the past. I remember a financial executive who wanted to go back to college to study medicine. We advised him to shadow doctors to see how it felt to walk in their shoes. He immediately changed his mind when he realized he couldn’t deal with suffering and blood. Exchanges with other industries or organization types are great for both learning and motivation. It helps people observe new things as well as understand that, sometimes, what they are missing in their current job they can find somewhere else. This could reignite the fire at their current job, or help them realize they want to do something else. You never know.
We live in a world of uncertainty. The only thing for sure is that we can’t take what employees need for granted.