Why Leaders Should Invest in Employee Career Development

Getting involved in the career development of their workforce helps HR decision-makers and leaders increase the value of their employees, reduce costly turnover, and ensure workers move up the ladder with company values in mind.

Why Leaders Should Invest in Employee Career Development

To retain top talent and maximize their potential, it’s essential to ensure employees have mastered the skills required to fulfill their job description and are on a path to advancement. That’s why 69% of organizations have increased employee career development initiatives since the pandemic.

This article will further examine the importance of employee career development and offer strategies and tips to maximize its effectiveness.

What Is Career Development?

The term “career development” describes the steps employees take toward their full professional potential. By investing in career development, organizations can give employees the tools to reach their career goals.

Goals can vary widely among employees, and it isn’t always to get a promotion or make more money. For example, while some workers may want to advance to a leadership role, others may want to transfer to a different department or update the skills they need for their current role. This is especially important as emerging technologies and digital transformation touch nearly every industry.

To establish an effective career development plan for employees, organizations should:

  1. Ensure the organization’s official job descriptions for individual roles are complete and up-to-date. This gives a comprehensive overview of the job-related tasks each employee is expected to complete and which skills they need to master to fulfill their duties effectively.
  2. Develop a clear career path so employees can understand the career growth opportunities within the organization. This improves transparency, helps set expectations, and supports retention by giving employees a view of their potential future at the company.
  3. Leverage skill assessments to reveal individual employees’ skill levels and abilities. This helps organizations and employees identify gaps that must be bridged for the employee to succeed in their current role and prepare for future advancement.
  4. Identify the learning and development resources that are currently available. Determine whether on-the-job training from a supervisor or veteran employee, a mentorship program, peer-to-peer training from a co-worker, or other internal training styles will be sufficient. If not, it may be necessary to involve outside vendors.

According to research by McKinsey, the top reskilling initiatives include leadership management, critical thinking, decision-making, project management, adaptability, continuous learning, basic digital skills, interpersonal skills, and empathy.

Employees want to focus on soft skills as well as hard skills. They want to improve socially and emotionally and level up their technical abilities.

It’s the responsibility of organization leaders to evaluate areas where employees want to better themselves, determine where those desires align with company interests, and provide an effective framework for strategic career development.

Why Is Developing Employees Important?

Career development helps employees become more effective at their jobs, gain more confidence, better align with company values, and position for advancement. It’s key to succession planning and internal hiring, both of which are great for morale and help mitigate expensive recruitment and onboarding processes. A new employee can cost $4,000 to $20,000 — and that’s before salary and benefits.

Upskilling and reskilling workers gives them career mobility and shows them they have a future within the organization. This improves employee satisfaction and loyalty, which for employers increases the value and effectiveness of their workforce while reducing costly churn.

Employee retention is increasingly challenging for organizations as attitudes toward work change. Gone are the days when employees remained at one employer throughout their career, making intermittent advances that may have had more to do with their tenure and less with their skill level or aptitude for promotion.

According to a 2022 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers reported being with their current employer for a median of 4.1 years. This is a decrease from 4.6 years just a decade before. The change is especially pronounced among younger workers, as median tenure for employees aged 25-34 was 2.8 years compared to 9.8 years for employees aged 55-64.

Workers are hopping from employer to employer more frequently than ever. Today, employee retention requires more than job security and salary. The Pew Research Center found that 63% of employees who left their jobs cited no opportunities for advancement as a reason they quit.

Employees want to work where they feel appreciated and can do meaningful work. They favor organizations that support a healthy work-life balance, align with their values, invest in employee skill development, and provide a path for advancement. In other words, companies that offer significance and a future.

Additionally, career development can help improve diversity in the workforce by elevating members of underrepresented groups into the talent pool for higher-level positions.

Why Should Leaders Be Involved?

Effective career development systems require buy-in from the top down. Not only can the success of these initiatives depend on the approval and acknowledgment of C-suite executives, but they also need their active support. This shows workers at all levels that they are valued as employees and that the company is committed to offering avenues for career advancement.

How Leaders Can Get Involved

Leaders can play an active role in employee development by making it an integral part of company culture. From direct supervisors to the CEO, leaders at all levels have a role to play in the success of career development initiatives.

  1. Have Conversations

Often, leaders wait too long to bring up the concept of career advancement or tack it onto the end of an unrelated meeting without giving employees a chance to prepare their thoughts in advance.

According to Harvard Business Review, it’s important to initiate career development discussions at the beginning of meetings, as this shows employees that the topic is even more important than pressing short-term agenda items.

The HBR reports the best time to start having career development conversations with an employee is when they have been with the company for 12-18 months. At this point, the next steps in their career path are likely already on their mind, and it’s important that they feel these next steps can be taken within their current organization.

For example, one company saw tenure improve from 3.1 to 5.4 years when they introduced employees at all levels to career development programs before they reached their second anniversary.

Additionally, rather than waiting for annual or quarterly reviews, the HBR recommends spending 15 minutes checking in with employees regarding career development topics every month. Making career development an ongoing conversation builds rapport and makes it easier to discuss the topic openly.

Managers at all levels can ask their direct reports questions that reveal valuable answers. Harvard Business Review offers some examples:

  1. Which courses would they take if they were offered the resources and time off work to do it?
  2. What do they look forward to the most about their workday and why? 
  3. What do they find energizing, challenging, and fulfilling?
  4. Which skills do they enjoy using, and which do they prefer not to use?

Many answers will provide opportunities for follow-up questions. It’s important to pursue these to gain a full picture of an employee’s interests, aptitudes, and aspirations.

  1. Experiment

Making small changes to an employee’s workweek can allow them to cross-train and entertain their interests for career development in real-life scenarios.

HBR recommends starting this a year after an employee joins the organization or assumes their current role and gives several examples:

  1. Invite a subordinate to a meeting about topics and processes outside of the normal scope of their duties with organization members they don’t typically encounter.
  2. Offer ideas for training, conferences, and other types of education, and be sure they know you’re open to their ideas.
  3. Place them on a team handling a new project or delegate tasks to them that are in line with their interests but outside their normal job description.
  4. Temporarily swap tasks among employees to allow them to practice their interests in other areas—within the same team or even in other departments.

These experiments allow employees to live out their curiosities and test their interests in practice. This will show them that their skills and career path are important to the company, allowing leaders to identify strengths that can be developed to benefit the organization.

  1. Educate

While the experiments mentioned above might be the best way for some employees to identify areas of career development they want to pursue and grow in those skills, others learn differently.

Here are examples of alternative training methods for employees:

  1. Attending workshops, seminars, and conferences
  2. Shadowing co-workers
  3. Listening to a visiting live speaker
  4. Online training, as well as mobile and in-person courses

Strategies and Tips for Supporting Career Development

The best methods for career development may vary from employee to employee. What’s important is that you initiate conversations, supervisors actively seek ways to develop their teams, you offer diverse training opportunities, and that initiatives have top-down buy-in from the entire organization.

Here are strategies and tips for initiating and maintaining successful career development strategies and helping employees achieve their full potential.

  1. Ensure employee career development supports business goals

While showing employees that the organization values their career and professional interests, it’s important to find ways that these interests intersect with those of the organization. After all, a company will want to develop employee skill sets that align with company priorities.

For example, goals like improving retention, increasing revenue, and promoting alignment with company culture may affect which interests and skills employees are most encouraged to pursue and develop.

  1. Track employees’ objectives and milestones

Employee career development needs to be self-guided to a point. However, tracking the success of employee efforts will help customize the strategy to their needs and ensure the resources committed to employee development programs result in progress.

Regularly meet with workers to discuss their progress and encourage employees in career development programs to meet with their peers. According to Forbes, to maximize progress, it’s important for employees to be accountable to someone other than themselves.

  1. Reward and celebrate achievements

Success in a career development strategy may not be as dramatic as their name placard suddenly appearing on the corner office door. Achievements can be more subtle and internal, but these successes are worthy of acknowledgment. 

Logging their progress in learning new software, awarding ribbons for completing courses, or spending a set number of hours on development are just two ways to celebrate diverse milestones.

Initiating peer support and acknowledging these successes publicly in the presence of peers and superiors can show workers that their progress is relevant and fits into the context of overall organizational improvement.

  1. Promote career development programs

In addition to routinely initiating conversations about employee development, employee buy-in can increase when they see others succeeding.

Public acknowledgment of employee successes not only gives well-deserved attention to their achievements but can also attract attention to career development programs. As a result, it may encourage other workers to consider areas where they would like to improve and choose to participate.

  1. Incentivize participation

Achieving milestones and objectives in career development may offer satisfaction and other personal, intrinsic rewards. It can also lead to career advancement and related financial rewards. 

Increasing buy-in from employees benefits the organization as well as the workers. After all, an upskilled and re-skilled workforce helps an organization stay up-to-date with emerging technologies and become stronger, more agile, and more competitive. To motivate employees and drive enrollment in career development initiatives, leaders may consider making it a job requirement.

Mandating the pursuit of licenses, degrees, or other certifications—while covering expenses for at least part of it—can ensure the workforce pursues continuing education to improve and diversify their skills.

  1. Open the doors to all employees

While it can be easy to overlook the potential of a lower-level worker, the trope of an employee starting in the mailroom to work their way up to the executive boardroom can be a reality.

Extend the invitation to participate in skills training to everyone on the payroll, from the cleaning crew to the top. While transitioning mid-level managers to executive roles can have a particularly noticeable impact on a company, any career advancement within an organization is significant. As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all ships, and developing employees at every level can benefit the entire organization.

Leaders should ask them what they want their career to look like in five or ten years and listen to their answers. They may discover unexpected aptitudes and pathways where the employee’s career goals, and organizational priorities intersect.

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