Career Path Conundrum
With the global business landscape changing constantly, helping employees plot their careers has become a more complex process for many organizations.
By Tom Starner
While the idea that employees expect employers to offer career planning still exists, recent research shows that, when it comes to employers helping their workers figure out their next job move, your grandfather's career-path strategy won't work anymore.
Gone are the days that career paths, for the most part, mimicked organization charts. Today, employers and HR leaders need to take a fresh, less rigid approach to what it means to give employees what they needs when it comes to career planning.
The report, Navigating Ambiguity: Career 2014, from BlessingWhite Research, found that less than half (41 percent overall, 38 percent in the U.S.) of the 2,000 global employees surveyed expect their employer to outline any kind of career path for them. When you break it down demographically, the youngest workers had the highest employer-provided career path plan expectations at 54 percent, while Baby Boomers had the lowest at 31 percent (Gen Xers fell in the middle at 40 percent).
Experts say that, for HR, it means any career path strategies must be much more fluid and flexible, as the changing workforce and workplace make the process much more of a moving target.
According to Mary Ann Masarech, lead consultant, employee engagement practice, at BlessingWhite, a division of GP Strategies Corp. in Columbia, Md., the basic idea is to combine useful tools (mainly online) with a strong "high-touch" component. Most of all, keep it informal, so that moving "up the ladder" is no longer the only career path trajectory.
"That 41 percent number is not a surprise," says Masarech. "But you would not have seen that number 20 years ago; it would have been much higher. People have heard the message that the traditional career path is no longer the main option."
Masarsch says the generational differences also are expected, because millennials, being new to the workforce, desire a career but don't yet know what exactly that means, and expect companies will be more involved in providing career planning. On the other hand, older, experienced workers understand that times have changed and their careers are more their responsibility than their employers.
"We do have to be careful with generational data, because based on all our research, we don't believe millennials have significant different values in terms of careers," she says. "Their high number is a reflection of where they are in the careers. But they are not looking for a clear career path, they just have higher expectations that they need help. If that need is not met, younger employees may look elsewhere."
She explains that employers should want people to build their skillsets so they can add value to the organization, but at the same time, employees must be primary owners of their own career pathing success.
"It's a 'You own it but we will help you navigate it' proposition," she says.
Antoine Gerschel, a managing partner at PeopleNRG.com, a global leadership and team consulting firm in Princeton, N.J., says less structured career planning is preferred today.
"Traditional career paths are outdated, cumbersome, complex, inflexible and maintain a 'status quo,' " Gerschel says, who agrees with the report's conclusion that differentiating between career planning and succession planning is necessary, as the latter is more about making sure the right people are "waiting in the wings" by planning the development of potential successors. Career planning, on the other hand, is for everyone.
"Everything else [other than succession planning] is primarily an appraisal or self-reflection and a personal journey by growing through job experiences, stretch assignments, mentoring, coaching and training; It's not a formal process," he says.
For those Gen Yers who expect a career plan, Gerschel says their needs can be accommodated by examples of success stories within the workforce, including video profiles of successful employees outlining their career path journeys.
"That makes it real, shows the variety of possibilities and the diversity of people and their choices," he explains.
He advises against outlining career paths, because it can create a false sense of entitlement. The idea is to foster openness for employees to be accepting of new opportunities.
Kurt Metzger, vice president of talent management at Prudential in Newark, N.J., develops and oversees the financial services company's talent programs, including learning and leadership development, performance management and succession planning. He says that with Prudential's recent re-focus on talent management, he spends much of his focus on helping employees understand their role in developing their career paths – but does not control the process directly.
"The BlessingWhite research really resonated with my philosophy," he says. "My experience is, we still see employees pining for the good old days where there were clearly defined career paths. But people in the workforce today appreciate the current realities."
At Prudential there are a few areas where more defined career paths still exist, mainly in highly technical areas where people build specific skillsets. But, for the most part, he says, traditional career planning is disappearing for reasons noted in the research – with change constant and the pace accelerating, a job that exists today may not exist one or two years from now. Or, if it does exist, it will be in a different shape or form.
"Creation of those longer term career paths becomes difficult at best," Metzger says.
To help its employees get a better handle on their careers, Prudential offers a classroom course called "Elevate Your Career," which Metzger teaches. Open to any employee, the main thrust is to help employees create personal career paths based on their passion and strengths, and then try to connect to what the company needs going forward.
"The idea is how to define those three things for yourself," he says. "For our program, we draw comparisons to creating a personal business strategy by focusing on what's changing, what skills and roles are needed and how to adjust."
While Prudential's programs -- such as Elevate Your Career -- benefit individual employees, they also create dividends for Prudential in the long term, says Metzger.
"People who are chasing their dreams are that much more engaged, and over time we get discretionary effort and the good things that come with employee engagement," he says.
Overall, Prudential provides traditional tools, classes and online learning, featuring an abundance of virtual platforms and forums where people can hear from leaders and other successful people within the company.
"The company wins when you think about it from an employee's perspective," he says. "We are less focused on retention specifically than we are about what will get them excited and engaged. In the end, we have a much more productive workforce."
Jeff Kudisch, assistant dean of corporate relations and a professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, calls the BlessingWhite survey results "interesting, though not surprising," noting that talent management across the board is not getting the strategic attention it deserves.
Kudisch suggests that networking, internal career fairs and programs where senior leaders discuss how they advanced their careers can be a good way to help employees plan their own careers. He also cited "learning teams" that can help people learn about other jobs and get feedback on building other skills. Employers also can offer simple, inexpensive tools. For example, they can create Youtube videos of their highly talented people that explore how those employees built their careers.
Unfortunately, Kudisch says, the main challenge is that many leaders and managers lack basic people-development skills.
"They can't begin to help with career pathing if they can't coach their people," he says. "And worse, in many cases there are no incentives to hold managers accountable for that responsibility."
BlessingWhite's Masarech says employers should focus on career "journeys, not ladders or tabs." They should drive the conversation around careers, but jettison the antiquated connect-the-dot type of career plan solutions.
"Dwight Eisenhower said 'Plans are useless, but planning is everything, ' " she says. "Online tools are very useful, but the 'high-touch' component is the key," she says. "The main question for employees is, What do I do tomorrow? Employers can still help them answer that question, but the direction has to come from the employees themselves."
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