Annual performance reviews are getting a lot of bad press these days. The Wall Street Journal regularly spotlights the shortcomings of this time-honored system. And finally, major high-profile organizations are beginning to jump ship, trading ‘one and done’ practices for more iterative, frequent, and ongoing conversations about performance, achievement and results.
Why has this taken us so long? The performance review’s second cousin – the career development conversation – has been the subject of a similar focus over the past several years. Countless organizations have come to understand that career development cannot be treated as another initiative or annual program. Many have been working for some time to abandon the formal yearly process or supplement it with more regular, embedded development. Many managers are becoming more adept at weaving career development into the workflow, making it more casual and conversational, making it part of the day-to-day cadence of business. And they are realizing a powerful result in the process: authentic and sustainable career development.
But some organizations may be reaching an inflection point; those that have mastered this new approach are beginning to wonder if their efforts to extend career development beyond the clear confines of the annual IDP (individual development planning) meeting have taken it too far. They’re asking themselves if their nano-coaching efforts, spontaneous on-the-spot interactions, and embedded development have become too seamless. They worry that these stealth approaches may translate. Employees may not notice the significant investment that’s being made in career development; they may not recognize that career development is even happening.
The good news in all of this is:
- Increasingly organizations are getting the message about what employee want and need… and how to move the needle relative to development and employee engagement.
- Many human resources departments are leading the charge and taking meaningful steps to move career development from a mere annual exercise to something that’s organic, more fluid, and woven right into the work flow.
- Managers are learning to help others grow through an ongoing dialogue that deepens rapport and understanding while uncovering creative ways to use employees’ talents.
- Formal systems and form-driven processes are giving way to a less structured, more personalized, ad hoc approaches.
- Career development is being transformed in ways that support the employee, manager, other stakeholders and the organization as a whole.
The bad news is:
- Busy employees may not recognize what’s happening because in their minds these good leadership behaviors and actions don’t fly under the banner of ‘career development’.
- This comfortable, casual, conversational system may feel so natural and normal that employees are not connecting the dots back to career development.
- Organizations and managers committed to doing career development ‘right’ may not get credit for it, because ‘right’ happens quietly, regularly, iteratively, and without the fanfare of programs and initiatives.
But, let’s face it… the truth is:
- You don’t likely have this problem – at least not yet. The vast majority of organizations and managers haven’t become so adept at embedding career development that their ongoing interactions would be characterized as ‘stealth’.
- There are, however, some organizations struggling with this… and there are steps they can take to ensure that the efforts of their leaders, managers, and supervisors resonate as career development with the employees they are so committed to developing.
When Informal Becomes Invisible: A Case in Point
A large east coast-based financial institution made an organization-wide effort to address career development over a 2-year period. The forms, systems, and administrative artifacts of career development were de-emphasized. The focus was on putting the ‘human’ back into their human resources processes.
Managers went through extensive training to conduct meaningful career conversations that focused on employees’ skills, interests, preferences, and goals. They learned how to engage others in dialogue around the big picture, evolving business landscape, industry changes, and the needs of the organization. They became skillful at helping employees find ways to put their talents and strengths to work in new ways that challenged the individual and supported the organization. Although the organization didn’t have a lot of promotions or lateral moves to offer, job enrichment and expansion exploded and anecdotally employees seemed pleased.
When the next employee opinion survey was conducted, there were high hopes that career development would finally find its way to the top quartile. When the results were published, leadership could not believe that not one single career development related item had improved… and one had even dropped further.
Trying to understand how they could have so completely missed the mark, despite the many focus groups and interviews with employees conducted. And the source of the problem was uncovered: Employees simply didn’t make the connection that the conversations, opportunities, and development they were in fact receiving (and genuinely appreciating) were career development. Career development had become so embedded and seemingly effortless, that it was invisible – it was stealth.
From Unnoticed to Understood (or Unstoppable)
If you’re considering a less formal, more pervasive and conversational approach to career development but are concerned that your efforts will go unnoticed, no worries. There are several non-gratuitous, organic, and value-add strategies that leaders can implement to ensure that employees recognize the undercurrent of development within the organization and appreciate it as part of your culture and commitment to them.
Just because it’s part of a daily cadence rather than an annual process doesn’t mean the conversations about career development can’t be overt. Use language to your advantage.
- Start by getting to know what each person’s career goals are. Refer to them frequently – and using the term ‘career goals’. “How do you see that project supporting your career goal of…?”
- Don’t hesitate to label discussions you’re having as ‘development conversations.’ “Do you have a minute for a quick career development conversation? I got some great client feedback that demonstrates how you’re doing against your goals.”
- Use the word ‘development’ liberally, reframing progress and learning in these terms. “How do you think that workshop helped you develop and move toward your career goals of…”
An individual’s career goals can be a powerful anchor point in a variety of different contexts. For example:
- When launching projects, delegating tasks, or assigning work, focus on the connection to the employee’s career goals.
- When people struggle with challenges, stumble or fail, it’s the ideal time to frame the need to learn and cast lessons forward in terms of development.
- When wrapping up projects or initiatives, a simple question like, “How will what you’ve learned support your career development?” can consciously shift focus and raise awareness around your commitment to the individual’s growth.
In today’s fast-paced world, it’s easy for busy employees to put their heads down, do what’s before them, and miss the connection between their actions and their development.
- Carve out time routinely to check in with employees, creating the time and space to consider how their work, new skills, and insights are furthering their career objectives.
- Recognize and celebrate concrete progress toward career goals and milestones – as well as efforts that may not yet have yielded results.
- Make sure the employees understanding that formal training programs aren’t the exclusive domain of development. On-the-job experiences, activities, job shadowing, coaching, networking, and even volunteer opportunities are all part of a well-rounded development plan. “What kinds of stretch assignments would you like to explore in support of your career objectives?”
Simply because career development is no longer rolled out on the annual organizational red carpet, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get a little fanfare. The more casual nature of ongoing, embedded development demands that leaders really highlight the value and success of everyone’s efforts.
- Include ‘development’ on every agenda and facilitate a conversations about how each team member is growing, learning, developing; then loop back to individuals to connect these insights to their career goals.
- Celebrate! When someone acquires new competencies, changes roles, gets a promotion internally or even takes a position externally, it’s an opportunity to shine the light on career development.
- Pat your organization on the back. Leverage the old sales technique of letting the customer know what you did for them. “We’re delighted to have been able to give you an opportunity to further your career by…”
- Use newsletters, message boards and social media to publicize how people are learning, growing, and succeeding, linking it all to career development.
More and more organizations are seeing the wisdom of taking career development off the annual calendar and transforming it into an everyday leadership responsibility. But doing so successful requires that employees don’t overlook the commitment, support and effort invested on their behalf. When it comes to this more organic and ongoing approach to development, integrated doesn’t have to mean invisible. Ad hoc doesn’t have to be interpreted as absent. And embedded doesn’t have to feel imperceptible.
Not if leaders consciously and verbally bring greater attention to their commitment and actions. Making development a little less stealth may be the secret to making it a lot more satisfying to employees and successful for organizations.