Creating Careers

Your Employee’s Career Path

Written by: Daniel Shaw
3 minute read
Image: Creating Careers

Do you know the difference between a linear career path and three-dimensional career progression? Your employees certainly do. 

When you make an offer to a candidate to work at your business, do you talk to them about their individual career progression, or do you just explain the career path that the company offers? That may sound like the same thing to you, but there is a subtle difference that is critical to understand. Get it wrong and you risk alienating your employees and turning their heads towards pastures new.   

Everyone has different expectations for their own career. Some will want to climb to the dizzy heights of leadership and status, whereas some may want to manage others to succeed. Some may want to turn their ambition inwards and develop new skills, whereas others may want to get out into the world and work across different countries and markets. 

The typical career ladder approach and why it can lead to your undoing 

Offering an employee a career path used to mean setting targets for their next promotion. Whilst this can certainly motivate in the long-term, basing a career solely on chasing a target can open someone up to all manner of disappointments that are – and this is the important thing – out of their control.  

Markets change, companies merge or go bust, offices close, bosses leave, global pandemics appear. If the only way you are keeping a valued employee engaged is by giving them a promotion to chase, and any one of these things listed above changes, then chances are at best their promotion criteria will be reset. And at worst it will be totally forgotten.  

If you use linear progression as the only measurement tool, then you are offering your employees only one way of succeeding, against a whole list of ways to fail. And what about those employees who are excellent but who you can’t promote because you already have enough more senior people from the last round of promotions? Should they just wait patiently in a holding pattern until something out of their control happens and a spot opens up? Doesn’t sound like a winning strategy to me, so what can you do instead to keep them progressing with the company? 

Three-dimensional career progression and how it works 

The easiest way to understand what career progression means to your employees is…. wait for it…. just ask them. Ask them when they are interviewing with you, ask them when they are on day one, ask them every time you sit down to appraise them. Their answers may evolve as they go through their career journey with you, and what you think you are offering may no longer be what they feel they need.  

Whilst everyone wants to feel they are moving towards something, that something doesn’t need to just be a promotion. That’s too long-term and unpredictable for the reasons already mentioned above. True career progression involves progressing their skills, experiences, happiness, wellbeing, responsibilities and challenges, not just their pay or job title. 

And if your budgets are tight and your promotions have been put on hold for some reason, then having alternative ways to progress your employees is a very useful thing. Maybe someone is in a UK role and really wants to take on international responsibility? Maybe they enjoy working in a team and would like more managerial or training responsibility? Maybe they have skills (writing, tech, presenting etc) that could be utilised in a better way and across other areas of the business? Maybe they’ve worked with a particular product or in a particular sector for a long time and would like to move laterally into something fresh for them? Maybe they have a particular passion for CRS, D&I or voluntary work, and this can be encouraged for the benefit of the company as well as their own benefit? 

Make bespoke tweaks rather than generic promises  

Treat each employee as an individual, talk to them about how they want to progress whilst they are working with you, listen to their needs and keep checking in to see if they change, set short-term objectives based around their personal and professional growth. Don’t assume they just want to move up a ladder and make sure you explain all the other non-linear options on the table for them.  

As well as making them feel that they are listened to and valued on an individual basis, this will undoubtedly lead to them talking about their job/boss/company in a much more positive light, and that will have a very good effect on your ability to attract future talent as well as retain your existing people.