An introduction to developing career paths for staff

Are you making the most of the talent in your business or do you lose employees after a couple of years?
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Developing career paths and showing staff that they have a future with your company is an essential component of talent management. It influences whether employees stay or go and impacts motivation, morale and productivity.

Yet research shows that many companies are failing when it comes to career pathing and opportunities for internal mobility.

A Gallup study found that 93 per cent of people left their employer last time they changed roles – meaning only seven per cent were promoted internally.

Additionally, less than half of employees (44 per cent) are satisfied with the level of training and career development in their organisation.

So how do you start mapping out career paths for staff and what changes could make a difference right now?

This guide looks at some of the main factors influencing employee career development and common mistakes you might be making. The next step will be to use our dedicated action plan to guide your next steps forward.

What factors affect your career development strategy?

Companies value external talent

It’s hard to pinpoint when the trend started, but companies are predominantly interested in hiring external talent rather than filling positions with their own employees.

HR managers are most likely to turn to employee referrals (48 per cent) or online job boards (46 per cent) to find quality hires – only 28 per cent would use internal hires.

This shift in mindset has a significant effect on employee career development. If business leaders don’t see staff as viable options for future roles, they will be less likely to invest in their training and development.

This leaves other companies – seeking external hires themselves – to take advantage and offer your staff opportunities elsewhere.

Employees are less willing to stay in the same job

You might start scoping out a career path once your employee has been with the company for two or three years. The problem is, this could be too late.

Younger workers, often described as the “job-hopping generation”, are less likely to stay in their current jobs for long periods of time. During the year or two they’re with you, they might be actively hunting for new positions or open to passive recruitment.

This means there’s a ticking clock for creating career paths for new staff members. If you don’t have a strategy in place in that first year, you could end up losing them.

There’s no longer a clear career ladder

Historically, staff joined a company, worked hard and moved up the ladder. What do you do if that ladder no longer exists?

These days, successful companies are agile and able to pivot to survive changes in the marketplace. That makes it hard to predict the skills, experience or roles they will need in five years or decide who might be qualified to fill them.

Rather than seeing career development as a straight path upwards – say, from junior accountant to accounting manager – companies now need to create flexible career paths that may involve sideways or diagonal moves across the business.

Mark Roberts has retained talented staff at Beer Hawk by giving them the chance to move into bigger roles

“When people have left us, it tends to be for family or location reasons. We typically attract younger people, so we’re able to grow them into different and bigger roles. Our second employee started in customer service and they’re now the office manager. One of the things I’m most proud of is seeing people still in the business doing new roles.”

Mark Roberts, co-founder of Beer Hawk

The cold hard facts

Glassdoor tracked 5,000 real-world job transitions and found that employers with high ratings in career opportunities, culture and values were more likely to retain employees when they progressed to their next role.

Common mistakes with developing staff career paths

You don’t have manager buy-in

It’s essential that managers understand what you’re trying to achieve and feel engaged in helping staff develop career paths. Securing management buy-in at the start will make the process much easier.

There’s a huge difference between ad-hoc and structured support too. If there’s a chance your managers might struggle to find the time to develop career paths with staff, think about establishing a process that promotes accountability.

The focus is too narrow

Managers often present career paths as leading from A to B, with a specific future role in mind. However, making the focus too narrow can be a recipe for disappointment.

There’s no guarantee that a specific role will be available – or even still exist – by the time they’re ready to move into it. Managers should be flexible and base career development plans around developing specific skills, rather than targeting set positions.

There aren’t enough training opportunities

One of the most common mistakes is spending time discussing a career path with an employee, then failing to follow through with the relevant support or investment.

Establishing career paths requires more than just conversation. It’s important that your company is prepared to provide any mentoring, training or resources your employee needs to progress.

James Poyser believes small, regular opportunities for learning are the most effective

“We're passionate about developing and pushing people, so we're always giving the team the opportunity to take on extra responsibilities and we'll entertain pretty much any training request from our team too. There are formal processes in place, such as development plans and reviews, but it's the day-to-day stuff that makes the real impact.”

James Poyser, CEO of inniAccounts

The cold hard facts

Recognition from managers motivates people to keep learning, particularly younger employees.

A 2020 study found that 44 per cent of employees under 22 years-old would spend more time learning if it was recognised by their managers, compared to 36 per cent of 22-37 year-olds and 28 per cent of 38-53 year-olds.

Quick wins for developing career paths for staff

Promote job shadowing

Job shadowing is an effective form of on-the-job training, but it also lets staff learn more about different roles and departments in your organisation. As part of the shadowing experience, your employee might attend team meetings or relevant client calls.

Shadowing other employees is particularly useful for getting staff thinking about their career path. Your staff might be uncertain about which direction to take, particularly if they’re young or inexperienced. Job shadowing offers a richer understanding of the opportunities available.

Use a from-to structure for career planning

Companies that have a flat structure or where fast growth means roles are evolving quickly should use a from-to structure for career planning.

Work with your employee to create two statements that reflect where they are currently (from) and where they want to be (to).

Be flexible with the “to” stage to make sure each career path fits that employee’s individual aspirations. For example, some people’s desired career paths will be tied solely to salary; others will want the chance to manage a team or learn certain skills.

The from-to method means that your employee doesn’t have to restrict their ambitions to fit a role that currently exists.

Set short-term goals

Once you’ve established where your employee wants to get to, work with them to create short-term goals for their professional development.

It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re working towards a target that will take several years to achieve – say, passing a qualification or leading a team. Short-term goals help to keep staff on track and focused on what they need to do to progress in their career.

These goals might involve completing a training programme or mentoring a junior member of staff to gain leadership experience.

Look for ways to factor soft skills in too, like critical thinking, problem solving, delegation or time management. These soft skills will be crucial if your employee wants to move into a senior position, but often get overlooked in favour of technical training.

“We operate a rather flat company structure and everyone is encouraged to contribute. We regularly discuss potential opportunities at quarterly reviews and send our staff on training courses. It’s important to give them the opportunity to expand their skills, branch out and explore other opportunities within the company.”

Matthew Hulbert, head of operations at Finnmark Sauna

The cold hard facts

LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report listed leadership and management (57 per cent), creative problem solving and design thinking (42 per cent) and communication (40 per cent) as the highest priority soft skills.

What to do next?

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