It's time to shift how we manage careers.

Careers have evolved from static and predictable pathways to dynamic and unpredictable zigzags. But when it comes to how we manage those careers, we are still tied to a number of legacy systems and approaches that no longer serve us well.

The limited impact of current career management resources

There are a number of reasons that current resources for career management have limited impact:

  • They weren’t designed for an environment where skills requirements for jobs — and the jobs themselves — continue to change rapidly
  • We rely heavily on managers to drive the career management process even though they lack the skills and capacity to do so
  • We give employees information and tools, but not the support they need to navigate their career at their organization.
  • We focus on matching the employee against open jobs rather than engaging the employee in co-creating future career possibilities

The hidden cost of present day career management

The state of today’s career management processes affects not only the individual but can present an unfavorable impact on the business as well.

Career management is lacking a sense of urgency

Too often, career management lacks the sense of urgency for people to prioritize it over other matters that seem more immediate. This is partly because the impacts of ignoring career management tend to be spread out and hidden – problems show up in turnover rates, steady decline in relevant skills/capabilities and lower dissatisfaction.

These are real costs to the organization. Even if they are hidden, they will add up. Even when things are working well, it can be hard to link good career management to the beneficial outcomes it generates. As a result, both problems and upsides are hidden.

Improper career management can lead to high turnover

Employee retention and engagement in particular can suffer without active career management in place. As we have seen with ‘the great resignation’, the pandemic has undone a century of gains in employee retention, leading to dramatic staffing gaps and significant turnover.

The impact of career uncertainty

Career uncertainty increases departure and lowers employee performance. The most common factor that employees cite when they leave an organization is a lack of career opportunity. Moreover, career uncertainty increases employee anxiety and harms every aspect of their performance.

By making immediate improvements in how their employees perceive their future careers at the organization, companies can increase engagement, work quality and retention. That’s the power of good career management.

The future of career management

A radical shift in the nature of work calls for a corresponding change in how we help employees manage their careers. Effectively managing employee careers will require action, expertise and an ability to navigate the unique context of the organization in question.

From career pathing to career engagement

Below are 4 things to consider when evolving from career pathing (traditional, defined careers) to career engagement (career management as an emergent process):

Careers should be dynamic and collaborative

Part of the issue with the traditional approach to career management is that information only flows one way, from HR/hiring managers to the employee. Because legacy systems are generally rigid and one-sided, they negate the opportunity for the employee to provide feedback and information to the business in order to actively shape their careers.

In reality, the person most likely to be on the leading edge of a particular domain will be the person in their current role. Working with employees in a collaborative career management process means tapping their unique expertise to help create a role better suited to the work as it is being done today, rather than an abstract model of how it should be done based on past history. By engaging in an ongoing, co-creative process, it is possible to stay on top of developments in the field, leveraging the expertise of the individual whose career path is being charted.

Effective business coaching requires active guidance

A second step is to shift from static resource centers to providing active guidance. As we have seen, the traditional approach of providing on-demand resources fails because it puts the responsibility on managers who lack the time and/or expertise to navigate the challenges of career engagement. There is no digital tool that exists which is sophisticated enough to provide all of the expertise needed to navigate one's career.

Coaching is more art than science. The coach needs to be sensitive to the individual’s needs in the moment, using that feedback to decide how best to help them navigate their desired path. Providing guidance through a human resource such as a coach also has tangible benefits beyond ensuring that career engagement actually occurs.

A career engagement coach will be working with multiple people across many fields and functions. This gives them a wider range of experience to draw from and means that they’re seeing where innovation is occurring in real time.

Value all workplace connections

Another effective step is to shift from assigned mentors and sponsors to nurturing connections more organically. While mentorship will continue to play a key role in career engagement, there is also a need to develop processes that are more dynamic and flexible that can better respond to changing work conditions.

Picture a network of connections that are continually nurtured; leading to sponsorships, mentorships and relationships that occur spontaneously, as opposed to being forced or formalized. These engagements can still operate with intention, but can be led as an active, ongoing process.

Humans matter

Ultimately, any adaptive system is going to need more human involvement, rather than less. Data can be useful in helping to explore how to define our work, but the creative elements have to come from human beings. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean a complete overhaul of existing talent management systems.

When human specialists are incorporated into the career management process, the organization gains a "super connector" who increases the output of information throughout the organization. Not only does this increase efficiency of information sharing, but it strengthens the business network as a whole.

This specialist is uniquely positioned to fill capacity gaps that would otherwise be hard to identify and difficult to resolve by using sophisticated matching techniques. This allows people to problem-solve organically and in a bottom-up manner, rather than trying to pull resources from the top down.

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Solutions for better career management

While we at Korn Ferry do believe that more radical changes towards the career management approach should happen in the long run, we recognize that not everyone is going to have the resources, or internal support, to start there. However, we believe that career solutions need to do the following things in order to be successful:

Incorporate feedback loops

We describe this as co-creation, but it extends beyond that. The key is that any system needs to incorporate feedback from the people whose careers are involved. They need to play an active role in shaping their careers, rather than choosing from a number of pre-populated paths.

Provide human resources

While we need to better engage employees in participating in the process, we also need to recognize that they aren’t experts. To ensure that career engagement doesn’t simply get kicked to the bottom of a list, we need to provide the resources and support necessary to ensure people can actually succeed.

Strengthen the network

Strengthening the network taps people into resources that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Feel like taking a new direction with your work? Ping your colleague who has done it before. The beauty of the network is that the more people network, the more everyone is linked together.

Key takeaways for a better career management model

We need to shift away from an approach to career pathing that begins with an assumed model of the world and then tries to fit people into it.

Rather, we should recognize that people’s careers are much more dynamic and dependent on the environment in which they operate. People need the ability to co-create their careers in ways that reflect the actual nature of the world they’re operating in.

By incorporating these characteristics into the career management process, companies can unlock tremendous potential that is currently untapped. By giving employees more opportunity to define the shape of their careers, the company gains more flexibility and diversity in the skillsets of those on the front lines.

Ultimately, optimal career management will look different at different organizations. This is because it is often mediated by culture, resources, domain, team structure and any other number of factors. The common thread is that any career management process which incorporates all of these factors will lay the foundation for a more dynamic, responsive and human-centric organization.

For more information on better career management, contact us here.