Career Paths – Predetermined Track or Unchartered Territory?

“Our people want to be clear about career progression”. This demand from their workforce caused many companies a lot of heartache costing money and time – nearly every respected big company undertakes a project called something like “Career paths” or “X (name of the company) Way” or “Build your future with Y” etc. Depending on the company’s size and budget, the project can result in a very sophisticated web site, or a simpler web page, or a comprehensive booklet or even a poster. These would show the possible roles on the company’s career ladder, sometimes listing skills or competencies needed to get there and various testimonials from the people who made this journey. Usually there is a big launch and an expectation that everybody will now be using this site/booklet as the Bible and will stop complaining in engagement surveys that their career progression opportunities have not been made obvious to them. HR is proud that this game-changing project is delivered and can happily include it in the list of massive achievements

What is the issue with “career paths”?
I do not want to discredit efforts of HR to create those – in fact I used to be involved in doing it myself. But now I see 5 big problems with the whole concept of “charting career paths”.

1. Career paths age as soon as they are published – people leave, jobs and their content change, the company’s focus and structure shift.

2. If the paths are made less specific to avoid “aging”, the content becomes too generic, giving the people no new or really useful information. 

3. The testimonials may be interesting (if those providing them were open and personal), yet they are not really relevant, as it is difficult to repeat somebody else’s experience. Those who want to become a Sales Director now, probably don’t need to start their sales career selling second hand cars.

4. The beautifully structured paths do not prepare people for an ever changing business environment, where restructure or changing business model are always “in the air”. In fact, the paths might become counterproductive, as they anchorpeople into keeping things as they are: to be able to follow the coveted path, the least thing you want is to disrupt the current organisation. 

5. The most important thing though is that all the hard work of creating the “paths” does not seem to answer the questions people wanted answered in the first place

What do people really want?
Talking to those who asked for “career progression” clarity, here are the things that I’ve heard:
- I want to know what opportunities are available to ME
- I want to know how I can be promoted and what exactly I have to do to ensure it happens
- I want to understand how much I will be paid if I take this role
- I want to feel that MY future is certain and guaranteed
- I want to be able to decide if MY future is better with this company or elsewhere

Can Career Path charting deliver the above?

Very few of these requests can be delivered by generic material describing the content of the current roles available in the organisation,or other people’s careers. Even if you list the qualifications and skills required for a particular job now, unless a person applies for it within 6 months, the expectations are likely to change, and anyway the promotion is not guaranteed for any individual with these qualifications.
It is helpful to know that a role that seems interesting and suitable in principle exists in the organisation, but this is not want people asked for.

So, how can you really help?
The main reason for companies trying to chart career paths is a laudable desire to help the employees to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty of the future. Most of us feel better when we know exactly what to expect. However, by setting to eliminate the ambiguity, the well-meaning employers are doomed to fail - it is just not possible in our VUCA world. So don’t sell them a dream that probably wont come true. The better way is not to try to eliminate ambiguity, but help people accept and adapt to it.

1. Talk about skills needed for the future, not the “jobs” you will have guaranteed.
Encourage people to learn new things and discover something that current successful managers do not even know. Shift from Employment to Employability– if a person has more future oriented skills, the chances are they will be in demand, both within the company and outside (yes, be brave to admit it, your employees will consider it anyway).

2. Introduce the concept of Job crafting.
If someone has the skills and motivation to do something useful for the business, which was not done before – why limit them by existing titles, grades and structures. Welcome ideas and help create new roles and teams to support them.

3. Create and promote tools for improving employees self-awareness.
Rather than copying someone else’s experience or following the market trends, to be more successful in what they do, people should base their choices on their own individual strengths and motivations.

4. Build a culture of constant career conversations.
To keep up with changes in business context and strategy as well as with changes in individual development and ambitions, it is vital to have regular checks. Train the managers to have a tailor made approach to individual careers, coaching their people to find the next steps that are good for them and the organisations.

5. Provide support for those anxious about the future.
It is true that uncertainty is uncomfortable. Do not infantilise people by giving them a false sense of security, instead, invest into communication and learning opportunities about dealing with change and ambiguity.

What is certain is that readiness to learn and change will be key for success in the future - as well as ability to see your future career not as a predetermined track, but an unchartered territory full of exciting new opportunities yet to be discovered.