What do you want to be when you grow up?

Throughout our childhood a seemingly simple question is often posed to us — “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. It comes from our parents, relatives, neighbors, teachers, even strangers. (although mine asked a slightly different variation..”When are you going to grow up?”, usually as a result of something I did to my sister).

When we’re younger, the question can be answered with a fair amount of whimsy, without any regard for practicality or the steps needed to get us there. Astronaut, Rock Star, Race Car Driver.

If you could name it you, could achieve it.

When we entered High School, we now needed a plan. Career aspirations of our youth became unrealistic and silly through the lens of pending adulthood. Some of us gave up our dreams of singing lead for Van Halen and slowly (sometimes forcibly) narrowed our career focus. Along the way, professionals were there to help us refine our dreams — guidance counselors gave us personality inventories and tests designed to make our career choices easier (by their predictors I should’ve been a podiatrist ); not to mention our entrusted college advisors who helped us pick our major, internships and, in turn, our career path.

However, as soon as we set foot on that inaugural ‘career path’ and joined the workforce, the question that followed us from the time we picked up a crayon in kindergarten throughout our college years immediately and suddenly stopped. Our career aspirations suddenly plateaus and left outside of our control.

Are we not done growing and exploring? Can we still not use some guidance and direction?

In most instances and in most companies the answer to the second question is a resounding ‘no’. We’re put inside a career box and often left to our own devices to navigate the complex twists and turns of corporate america and plot our own developmental course towards higher levels of achievement. For example, how many of your employees clearly understand the difference between the roles and responsibilities associated with the following job titles: Jr. Software Engineer, Software Engineer and Sr. Software Engineer (or any job family title progression for that matter)?

Other than time and tenure, it’s somewhat of a mystery. And while good work and sequential merit increases and bonuses (along with the highly subjective rating on our annual performance review) can be correlated with a potential promotion, we’re expected to intuitively know what skills are required to be considered for the climb up the career ladder.

At PulsePoint, we take an active role in helping our employees chart their course and move forward in their career.

To be certain, we’re not the only ones tackling this challenge. For years, larger organizations have established T&D teams who’s job is addressing this issue. At smaller organizations like PulsePoint (where I work) it’s a bit tougher and takes a collaborative effort between the People Team, the manager, senior executives (who must support the initiative) and the employee to clearly define the roles and responsibilities associated with an employees potential career progression.

Beginning at the sixth month of employment, we check in with each team member as part of our regular “stay interview” cadence. At that time we ask a series of question designed to better understand a team member’s career aspirations:

  1. Can you help us understand your career progression expectations and what you see as being your next role at PulsePoint? What more would you like to do and contribute? How can we help you get there?
  2. What types of things do you want to learn this year? Think about the skills you may need to progress to the next level in your career. Also, think about those things that may not entirely be ‘career-related’ but would be a good and interesting thing for you to learn (e.g. public speaking, excel skills, coding for non-tech roles).

The team member are also asked whether or not if they’re looking to move into a people management position or if they’d prefer to pursue an independent contributor track.

The People Team consolidates this information and works closely with the manager to create individualized Career Development Plans (CDP) for each team member, identifying the skills and competencies needed for their next role, their current skill level (technical skills, soft skills, industry-related skills) and the size of the gap (small, medium or large) between the two. This helps team members clearly understand what they need to learn as well as the anticipated timeline they may expect in attaining the skills that may bring them to the next level.

Finally, an Action Plan is created to identify the methods (formal training, mentoring, participation on new project teams, etc.) to fill skill gaps and meet competency levels by building a concrete roadmap of training opportunities and development areas. Each action directly relates to one of the competencies identified in the Skill Gap assessment process.

Establish a training budget (and spend it).

To support our CDP, each and every employee at PulsePoint is provided with a generous annual training stipend that is centrally budgeted and managed by the People Team. We also identify any larger group trainings that are linked to our overall business growth and strategy (Innovation, Sales, Presentation Skills, Creating Strategic Business Plans, Financial Accounting etc.) and budget for them as well.

Unfortunately, learning and development can still sometimes be seen as a budget item that can be cut when companies need to tighten their belt. We need to move away from thinking training is a cost to be minimized, to thinking it is an essential expense that helps the company achieve its goals.

Our commitment to training is a critical component of our Career Development Plans as well as our overall retention strategy. We are sending our team members a clear message that they are valued and important to the success of our company and we are willing to make an investment in their growth and development.

Getting the competitive edge.

As the war on talent continues, prospective employees are looking for opportunities to join companies like PulsePoint where they can grow and gain more responsibilities and not just get a paycheck. That loyalty goes both ways. If an employees feel they are bing invested in they will invest in you. Such synergy effects retention, as supporting professional growth is one way to make sure employees do not jump ship.

So start asking the question of your team members — ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’, listen to their answers and invest in their development roadmap. While you may not be investing in Van Halen’s new lead singer (a dream many of us gave up on long ago), you’ll definitely be making a strategic investment in the success of your company.