The events of the past two years and The Great Resignation have brought into clear focus the extraordinary impact of growth, learning, skill building and development of all kinds on retention and organizational results. In the next several editions, we’ll explore how career development is changing, as well as ways to use it to engage and retain talent. 

You’ve likely seen the statistics. According to Gallup, 87% of millennials say professional growth and career development are very important. And 76% of employees are looking for opportunities to expand their careers. While 94% of employees say they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning and development (L&D).  

Career development is one of the most powerful tools L&D professionals have to make a difference — for employees and the organization. But as the world of work has changed, so too has our relationship with careers: 

  • Workforce demographics are changing. Employees are becoming younger and more mobile. 
  • Tenures are becoming shorter. On average, employees remain in a role for just over four years.  
  • Movement is the norm. Employees entering the workforce today will change jobs an average of 12 times over the course of their working lives. 
  • There’s talk of the end of jobs altogether. Future work may “focus far less on static jobs and far more on skills, experience, diversity, adaptiveness, and flexibility.” 
  • Deep soul-searching over the past two years has sparked COVID epiphanies. Many employees have arrived at powerful insights about what’s most important and what they want out of life. 

Now is the perfect time to rethink careers and determine the best way to develop them. Here are two strategies to get started. 

Elevate the Conversation

In many organizations, career development has become primarily process-focused. There are forms, tools and deadlines — all of which are necessary to meet the needs of the organization for workforce and succession planning. But let’s be clear: These don’t do much to meet the employee’s need for genuine connection, understanding, inspiration or growth. What does, however, deliver on these needs is real — sometimes raw — dialogue. 

Meaningful rethinking or redefinition of careers and development begins with conversation. As a result, managers must be prepared to lead with curiosity and great questions. They need to probe (respectfully) about what others want out of the time they spend at work. They need to listen ferociously and commit to clarity and understanding. Finally, they need to create a psychologically safe space, build trust and earn the right to hear and support their employees’ candid thoughts, needs, interests and aspirations. 

Shift the Focus

Working with hundreds of organizations over the past 20 years, I’ve discovered that a significant factor in the current confusion related to careers is that we’ve mistakenly conflated career development with promotions and moves. The standard career conversation question, “Where do you see yourself in XX years?” only serves to reinforce the connection.  

Clarifying what “career” means today requires helping employees shift their attention from what they want to be to what they want to do. This means shifting the focus to what kind of work people want to do, the achievements and accomplishment they desire and how they want to grow personally and professionally. 

There are a lot of unknowns in business. One thing we do know is that people will continue to be deeply interested in their careers. Let’s help them figure what that means today — so they can get on with developing them in meaningful ways tomorrow.