Becoming a manager isn’t necessarily everyone’s end goal. So why is that sales leaders so often define career mobility as placing top sales performers in non-sales (management) roles? The conventional line of reasoning goes something like this: If Jane excels in the sales world, meets her key performance indicators (KPIs) and outpaces everyone else on her team, then she must be a prime candidate to lead other salespeople down the path to success. The assumption here is that companies can generate exponential growth by strategically placing top salespeople in leadership positions. Sometimes it works out that way, but very often it doesn’t.

Reality check: Sales and management are two different animals. An expert salesperson may in fact struggle under the mounting pressures to create thriving teams. When this happens, satisfied and talented people can easily become disgruntled and, eventually, disengaged. Seeing career mobility as a linear path is generally to blame because such a perspective lacks nuance and fails to account for differences in individual personalities and goals, and it conflates the diverse skill sets required for different roles (i.e., doing sales is not the same thing as leading a sales team).

This begs the question: If we don’t view career mobility as linear and if not every star performer is destined for management, how can we continue to provide career development opportunities for those employees not on the management track? One answer lies with the learning and development (L&D) function.

3 Ways L&D Can Foster Career Advancement

Leveraging L&D to empower employees beyond the conventional management track can have a huge payoff in terms of employee satisfaction and retention. Your teams will know without a doubt that they can progress within your organization because what progress looks like is different for each individual. The prospect of growth can propel them toward greater proactivity and far less stagnation — or, in other words, toward greater engagement.

To that end, here are the top three ways L&D can help foster greater career advancement opportunities for all employees.

1.   Assessing Needs.

L&D’s first task is to identify the needs of all stakeholders. What does the organization as a whole need to thrive? What about its employees in various departments? Who are the right employees to provide support or fill specific roles throughout the company? What are their existing skills and competencies, and what’s needed to develop them into those roles?

Many managers (especially in sales) assume that the most productive way forward is to take their best salespeople and put them into management positions. But the competencies you need to be a sales manager aren’t the same competencies that made that employee an effective salesperson. And if the appropriate competencies aren’t present, the tendency is for a new manager who was an excellent salesperson to say, “go and do things the way I did them because those things worked for me in the past.” In other words, they take an almost prescriptive approach to leadership rather than coaching their teams and empowering them to do their own jobs.

L&D has an opportunity here to fill the transitional gap by identifying the people most likely to succeed in those roles and then developing the skills needed to be successful in those roles. Neglecting this all-too-important step creates individual frustration, and frustrated employees often leave.

2. Career Mapping and Development.

Defining success for your employees is a cardinal mistake. On the other hand, taking a more collaborative approach to uncovering what success means and what it looks like for each individual has a much greater return on investment (ROI). And since everyone’s career path is different, this process enables leaders to more clearly understand where people will thrive. Sometimes, for example, that means working together to realize that growth for a given employee means a move to a different department (e.g., that a shift from an internal technical or service role to a sales role might be in order). L&D now has the task of working alongside the employee to map out a career path that both benefits the company and the individual employee in question as well as preparing the employee to shift from one role to the next.

While this work is more easily accomplished in large organizations, it can also be done in smaller organizations by finding cross-functional teams or special projects that will help employees to grow. This supports professional growth through the opportunity to learn and flex new skills when permanent role changes are not immediately possible. Creative problem solving and collaboration are key.

3. Deploying L&D as a Cross-departmental Function.

L&D operating as an isolated function sends up a huge red flag. That’s because it impairs your organization’s ability to achieve strategic business outcomes. In this scenario, L&D usually struggles to assess skill needs across the organization and therefore can’t effectively build a cohesive training strategy. Growth and mobility opportunities diminish as a result. And when these two factors aren’t readily apparent to employees, retention problems often arise.

Cross-functionality mitigates these problems. In fact, maintaining partnerships between L&D and human resources (HR) as well as sales, senior leadership, finance and other departments ensures that L&D initiatives have adequate executive sponsorship, budget and resource support. It also ensures that the employee journey — from hiring and onboarding to ongoing development — fosters growth and retention.

Learning and development is a key player in creating successful career paths in all organizations. That’s why it’s so important for this function to have the right partnerships with different departments and to help identify company-wide and individual growth areas. Proactively working with HR or with the sales function is almost always a prerequisite here. This collaborative mindset enables greater understanding of your company’s strategic objectives as well as how employee growth fits into that picture. The long-term payoff, of course, is a happier and more deeply engaged workforce.