Employee EngagementLearning & Development

Evolving Mindsets Toward Career Development

New thinking helps workers adapt to change

By Wendy Tan

With the speed of change sweeping through business environments, organisations increasingly need to adopt a more flexible mindset that empowers employees for career self-management. If accelerating skill development, and building the talent pipeline, is important, then this new mindset is critical.

Career development is one of the top recruitment, engagement and retention. In our recruitment efforts, the typical pitch is “join us, because we will realize your potential.” But is there real commitment behind this statement?

The mindset of control and efficiency gets in the way that is counter-productive to the employees and organizations in the longer run. I heard these comments from managers:

  • “We don’t want employees to reflect too much about their careers, in case they want to leave.”
  • “Let sleeping dogs lie. Don’t put thoughts about career development in their heads.”
  • “Why open a can of worms? What if everyone wants a different role after they have thought about their career?”
  • “We can’t have the whole organization wanting to change roles!”
  • “We need to check the career aspirations of the people to see if they have got it right.”
  • These comments reflect:
  • The organization’s lack of faith that people will want to stay if they reflect on their careers.
  • An assumption that people don’t already think of career development.
  • A lack of trust and confidence that we will be able to find viable win-win options for the staff and organization.
  • An assumption that we know what’s best for their career development.
  • And perhaps an anxiety to keep the status quo, because it’s predictable and controllable.

These assumptions are potentially counter-productive because they are based on the industrial model of organizing work, where work is predictable and easily managed by breaking it down to small parts. However, with the twin forces of globalization and technology, the frequency, nature and scale of change has increased tremendously. This forces organisations to be agile and adapt quickly. New skills and know-how are constantly emerging. The top 10 jobs in demand now did not even exist in 2004.

Rather than operate based on the same assumptions from the industrial age, perhaps it is worthwhile to examine our assumption, and consider the organisation’s stand on career development beyond our recruitment pitch.


Organizational mindsets toward career development

Let’s examine the different mindsets of organizations toward career development. For simplicity, these are presented as two polarities -traditional mindset versus flexible mindset.

These two organizational mindsets toward career development serve different contexts. The traditional mindset is suitable when there are minimal changes in the operating environment that compels work to be done differently. The career ladder and graduating competencies remain stable and apt. In addition, there could be operational constraints. Or a pre-determined set of experiences required for bigger subsequent roles that do not give people an option to choose a posting. This is a fixed environment.

On the other hand, the flexible mindset works better for contexts where the world is changing faster than we can plan and control for that organic evolution becomes more efficient. In addition, HR is typically too thinly resources to do the heavy lifting in planning every individual’s postings. This is an evolving environment. Here is an example of that environment from Bloomberg:

Career Development in a Fortune 500 company in the Media Industry

Being an open and transparent company, employees are expected to drive their own careers. However, a few years ago, some high quality talent left the company. Although
it was not a big number, it was still a loss as they were high quality talents. This triggered the President’s question – Why?

Study into the exit interviews by a task force found a lack
of clarity in career direction and fear in applying for other jobs. There was a perception that managers would stop their application or view them unfavourably. As there was no clear career ladder, employees did not know of opportunities elsewhere. This also contributed to some disengagement. With these findings, Career development (CD) became a priority in the company and a team of 5 CD specialists was appointed to spearhead CD globally.

The Career Development Strategy and Philosophy includes:

  • Employees own their career and are encouraged to think about their career development strategy
  • The organization’s role is to support by making career development opportunities known and transparent across the company
  • Employees are encouraged to apply for internal positions and the organization commits to filling positions from within first
  • Employees need to stay in role for at least 18 months and focus on learning and mastering their current role
  • Career development happens in all directions, not just upward progression

The Career Development program is multi-faceted:

Employees have access to resources, such as tools to understand one’s career aspirations and development areas as well as education sessions to understand different parts of the business. Employees also have access to career advisors. These career advisory roles are voluntary and on top of their current jobs. They give employees career advice or help them understand a different job or market.

Managers have all undergone compulsory career coaching training to equip them with skills for effective career conversations. Managers who lose a staff in the internal application process have some scope to negotiate a viable timeframe for transition. Recruitment support is given to these managers and they are also recognized as people developers.

Organizationally, there are systems to support career development too. For example, all job postings globally are available on one platform, complete with search functions and alert features. The application process is easy and confidential. Employees do not need to tell their managers until they are seriously considered.

The HR department is also careful to manage expectations, e.g., entry level jobs are not likely to justify relocation costs. CD also organizes panel discussions that help people learn about different parts of the business and career options at the same time.

Impact: After a few years of the career development program, there is greater appreciation from the business on CD services. There has been increase in internal applicants and of vacancies filled by internal hires. Engagement scores have also improved.

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Finding the Sweet Spot

We are not suggesting that this above model is suitable
for all organizations, since the operating context could be different. However, the crux of career development is finding an alignment between individual values and aspirations, and requirements and possible constrains of the organization. This is the sweet spot, which then supports the engagement and retention of your people.

To help us get to the sweet spot, here are some questions to consider your organization’s stand towards career development:

  1. Right now, which mindset does your organization tend to operate from?
  2. What kind of environment does your organization operate in? Rapidly changing or stable and unchanging?
  3. What shift in mindset towards career development is appropriate, so that we develop our workforce for the future?
  4. Based on the table above, craft your organization’s position on career development. Look through the table above and explore your organization’s stand on these dimensions.

Discuss these questions as a team. Here’s a challenge to organizations – Do not seek refuge in control, the world is changing faster than we can control. Trust your people to make good decisions for themselves and the organization. The challenge to managers is to decide what you want your people to say about you as their manager. Do not be afraid of opening a can. It could also be a can of chocolates and even if you need to manage the worms, you can acquire the skills to do that.

(Wendy Tan is the Singapore-based founding partner of The Flame Centre, where she partners with clients in the Asia Pacific region and government agencies to develop and engage their human capital. Wendy was a keynote speaker at the HRO Today Global Magazine Forum in Singapore, where she and her organization also were honored with the Thought Leadership Award.)


Tags: Employee Engagement, Learning & Development

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