I recently wrote a letter of recommendation for a professional who I've worked with, as his client, for over 5 years. John has been amazing at his job and has treated my clients, friends, and family incredibly well. He's consistently exceeded our expectations and I've even joked about hiring him numerous times over the years. He's the type of individual that you want on your team. He's shared his professional aspirations and his hunger to help his company by taking his career to the next level. We've become friends over this time.
When I think about my own clients, and the relationships that we've developed over years of working together - they've become personal. It's not unusual to do business with people that you like and trust. In fact, it's very common.
After being in his current position for over 6 years, John applied for an internal role as a director. He works for a global sports marketing firm that owns and operates a variety of portfolio companies, and this new role would be an opportunity for John to leverage his sales expertise and client base on a larger scale to help his parent company. Not only is he smart, successful, and talented - John is loyal.
After making it through the final interview for the role, unfortunately John didn't get the job. We connected after the interview process and he graciously thanked me for the letter of recommendation. I asked him what happened, and John told me that he was informed that he didn't have enough experience for the director role. This, too, isn't unusual but what happened next shocked me. John told me that his company advised him that he'd be better served leaving the organization, proving himself elsewhere, and then coming back to be considered for the director role. Despite the fact that he's worked for the company for almost 7 years, was extremely successful in two different sales roles, the feedback was for him to leave if he wanted to gain enough experience in order to move up...
I was dumbfounded.
By far, one of the biggest risks that companies can make is by not career pathing for their employees. Now, don't get me wrong. If John aspired to be a Chief Financial Officer and had been working as the VP of Finance for 7 years, but there was no upward mobility because the CFO role was occupied, this situation would then be more understandable. But John applied to this vacant internal role, his current leader knew and supported his application, and, after interviewing, he was told that he wasn't qualified for the position. All of this happens, and is still ok...however, there is inherent risk if a company can't show their employees the paths to other internal opportunities. Turnover will occur. Just reference the often-used phrase by employees leaving a role - 'no upward mobility'.
Think about this. If a firm has an internal director opening and 5 internal employees apply for the role, the best case scenario is that 4 people don't get the job. Maybe all 5 don't get the role and the company hires a candidate from the outside. Again, that's ok. However, if the company can't help those 4 (or 5) internal employees understand the delta between their current skills and those needed to obtain a higher level within the org - well, that could be a major issue. Some, or all, of the internal candidates might not have the skills or potential to get such a role in the future, but without a clear understanding of how to move from one role to another, it will never be anything more than assumptive. Instead of opportunity, the organization now has to deal with liability. Instead of growth, they may be facing attrition. Instead of loyalty, they may need to deal with internal strife.
Regular reviews provide a feedback loop for leaders and their employees, alike. Reviews aren't just about performance - but should be a reflection on what has been agreed to and accomplished since the last review, an opportunity to set goals for the next review, and a platform to freely discuss the professional growth objectives of the employee. If John's leader knew that he aspired to be a director at the firm, he could have incorporated some of the experience needed in the form of Objectives and outcomes to measure success, or Key Results (hence, OKRs). OKR's provide clarity, track success, and the employee is also held accountable. Some of the best companies in the world use OKRs for goal setting:
In an Inc.com article about reviews, the author mentions that, "If you want your team to know where they stand--what they do well and where they can improve--then you have to develop a process for delivering real-time, continuous feedback."
The article goes on to highlight that feedback:
Shows that you care about your team
Helps to understand weaknesses (and to communicate what an employee needs to work on)
Feedback improves how we listen
Effective leaders must spend time on career pathing. It takes work. In order to do this effectively we must evaluate the organization's current state and look to the future to identify the personnel gaps that may emerge as the firm morphs and changes via growth. Not only is this exercise healthy for your growth plans for the firm, it's so valuable to identify where you can develop your people. In a more optimal world, an org can identify these future needs and groom employees for professional development in-line with these future opportunities. This is also an opportunity for 3rd party training and certifications. When companies can do this consciously and proactively, career pathing becomes a natural step in the process.
Ideally, if leaders can work with HR to identify a career pathing framework based on strengths-based development and growth, a firm can incorporate their values into the employee's advancement opportunities. When you have strong performers and can draw a parallel between their strength and the opportunities that do (or will) exist for advancement, companies can gain an added level of loyalty from the employee base. As one HR professional recently told me, "Rather than a career ladder or path, perhaps it's a career journey or matrix. Developing and adding skills based on the individual strengths that also fill the organization's gaps. This truly takes time, communication, and extra effort, but builds best case scenarios for both the employer and employees".
Without a focus on organizational maturation and development, companies and employees can't develop effectively. Or, at the very least, decisions tend to be made reactively. At the end of the day, employers should understand the goals of their employees, articulate what it takes to move within the organization, and work with them to achieve their goals. This isn't about pacifying the employee or the situation, it's about challenging your team with clear definition about how to succeed in their role and within your company.
Like the best client business relationships, employee loyalty is hard to earn. It should be something that's valued and worked on throughout entire careers. One of the most important things about a job, for any employee, is some insight on what the future could hold. Career development increases employee motivation and productivity. A focus on career pathing also helps companies attract great new hires and retain key employees. Once companies embrace the fact that organizational growth and professional development are interdependent, the opportunities for everyone are endless.