Career development may have taken a back seat to the many demands and emergencies facing organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic — and that’s understandable as companies rushed to pivot to the new demands of a post-pandemic world.

As leaders deal with navigating a continuous global health concern — architecting work policies and managing employee well-being — they must also think about the needs of their employees, especially as it relates to career development.

Even before the pandemic, supporting your employees and engaging them in their career development was a critical lever for managers of employees. Gallup found that an employee’s relationship with their manager is tightly correlated to their ability to stay engaged and retained, and an employees’ feelings about their ability to learn and grow is a big driver of employee engagement. Furthermore, in a tight labor market, retaining your employees and ensuring they are engaged is critical to helping you achieve your team’s goals and business metrics.

Many employees are reflecting on their jobs and circumstances and evaluating their careers. Odds are that at least some of your employees are in the 40% who want to change jobs this year. As a manager, you can’t control what your employees do, but if you want to keep them engaged and retain them, the best thing you can do is to double down on their career development.

A Manager’s Role in Career Development

A manager’s goal should be to get their team to achieve business outcomes with the people that they have. Career development is a strategic weapon to be able to tie your people’s strengths, goals and aspirations for their work to what needs to be done. Career development is also something your employees want and expect. According to the Jobvite 2019 Job Seeker Nation Survey, 61% of workers say career growth opportunities are more important than compensation (57%) and health care/retirement benefits (58%). Lack of career development is one of the most common reasons why people leave their jobs.

Unfortunately, this dynamic is often overlooked because managers are employees are busy or don’t take the time to define goals and expectations. In my work with coaching managers, they often struggle with career development. Some common misconceptions are:

  • It is the employee’s responsibility to define their career. True, but as a manager, it is part of your job to guide employees into making that career plan a reality.
  • They may leave the organization. Another objection is that helping your employees manage their careers may lead them to go somewhere else. While this is true, the reality is that they are going to do this anyway. Getting involved allows for you to have a collaborative relationship around this, versus a “me vs them” relationship.
  • I may not be able to give them what they want. Your job is to be a guide and a facilitator and to be honest when you can’t.

In my experience, the most impactful development happens not through formal programs, but through intentional actions and moments throughout the employee’s tenure that are personalized to their individual experience. Managers play a critical role in making those moments happen. It might seem impossible to do this, and almost half of managers admit to struggling with career development for their employees, but here are five ways managers can empower employees through career development:

1. Schedule quarterly meetings. The first action you can take is to schedule a quarterly conversation with your employees regarding career development. Making this a habit helps them know that this is a priority for you and for the team. If you have multiple direct reports, make sure you also communicate leading up to the conversations that these meetings are happening.

2. Be clear about your role and expectations. Make it clear to your employees that you are invested in helping them succeed and that you are committed to guiding and facilitating them on their journey, but also share that they are the ones who ultimately must decide what they want. Russ Larrway, a longtime manager, says you should be “the lighthouse” for your employees. You should guide them by asking thoughtful questions about their aspirations and their future, homing in on key things that they say and playing back to them what you are hearing to help them process what they are saying. Ultimately, you should help them define their goals and how to achieve them.

3. Make it separate performance evaluations. One common mistake managers and employees make is that they include their career development conversations in their performance evaluations or align it to the regular performance evaluation that is mandated by human resources (HR). There are two reasons for the separation. First, performance evaluations are backward looking, while career conversations are forward looking. Second, you shouldn’t conflate the two of them. Remember to communicate leading up to the career development conversation that it is about their future, not the past.

4. Share your own experiences. As a manager, you are also probably thinking about your own career development and having those conversations with your own manager. One thing you can do to help drive inspiration is to share your own thoughts about your own career development. That can mean sharing the types of training or learning you experiencing, the types of people you are networking with or the types of mentors who are helping you. Showing them through your own experiences can model the behavior you hope to drive and giving them context and insight into your employees can build their own career development plan.

5. Tie their career development into existing goals. Employees appreciate seeing the connection of how what they do aligns to the overall goals of the company as well as your team. Employees want to know that their work makes a difference. Show them how their own career development and the skills and experiences they are gaining will contribute to the team’s progress and objectives. Perhaps it’s how upskilling can help them tackle new projects or how by expanding their network they can build stronger relationships that will help them do their job better.

In Conclusion

The one resource that we cannot get back is time. By investing your time in the career development of your employees, managers can demonstrate they are willing to invest the most valuable and rare resource they have. Talented employees are one of the most essential factors in your business’s ability to operate effectively. A positive change you can make is to proactively engage your employees in their career development — which may just be the thing that causes them to stay.