Why The Corporate Ladder Needs a Full Makeover

Building a more transparent corporate ladder. Pic by Christopher Burns

Career development ain’t what it used to be.

Success meant a linear climb to the top of one’s profession (or employer). Though some organizations are flexing their approach to career development — e.g., corporate lattice model— we are just scratching the surface.

Most companies still operate on a one-size-fits-all approach; the assumption that most employees are alike and driven by similar goals and objectives. Job descriptions, and required skill, define “career opportunities.”

Career change is the new normal.

Job hopping is rising (and not just among Millennials). A CareerBuilder survey showed that 45% of employees plan to stay with their employer for less than two years.

There’s not a clear consensus on what is considered a career change though. Some are venturing into a new industry; others want to start an entirely new profession. But there’s one common thread: most people are not very happy with their current job or just doing okay, but unsure of what’s next.

Statistics aside, I hear this frustration first hand when facilitating team workshops. There’s a growing need for most employees to uncover what’s next in their careers. Even those who are doing okay with their jobs want to find something more exciting. Others are simply done with both their jobs and careers and want to start over.

There’s one thing almost everyone agrees with: their current managers (or employers) are not very helpful.

Why People Leave

“When quitting is done correctly, it isn’t giving up; it’s making room for something better.” ― Adam Kirk Smith

“Why are you leaving? Why did you take that new job?”

The reason why people quit their jobs is not the same as why they take a new one. I learned this by asking those two questions for over two decades.

Employees leave jobs when they can’t “suck it up” any longer and choose one that will allow them to grow (more on this later).

People leave managers, not jobs. Unhappy bosses make unhappy employees. Managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement according to Gallup.

Also, most professionals believe it’s easier to find a better job somewhere else than within their current employer. But advancement doesn’t always mean upward mobility: almost half of job seekers quit because it was (very) difficult to make a lateral move at their previous job. Those who want to experiment with their careers believe that the solution lies outside.

“If our team were unhappy, we would know.” — I hear this argument very often.

Most managers believe they are doing a much better job than their direct reports think. Only 1 out of 2 jobs seekers believe their employer has helped them advance in their career. One reason is misunderstanding what drives people. Managers still believe that providing promotions equals career advancement (68%), but only 39% of employees agree with them.

Retention practices feel one-sided. Employees should stay because they want to (loyalty) rather than because companies make their lives more comfortable (retention). Promotions and salary increases might silence the symptoms, but don’t address the root problem.

Employees want to learn more. And, to be challenged. They don’t just want professional development; they want to grow personally too.

Redefining Careers in an Era of Uncertainty

“Your best practices won’t save you.” — Dr. John Kotter

When everything was predictable, mastering specific skills and loyalty were rewarded above all. But knowledge can quickly become a barrier to succeed in an ever-changing world, as I wrote here. The most successful teams adapt to change, rather than stick to how things used to work.

Uncertainty is the new rule. Jobs are disappearing, life expectancy is increasing; disruption is affecting every industry. Both employers and employees need to embrace a more fluid mindset when it comes to career planning.

Oxford University estimates that 47% of jobs will disappear in the next 25 years. That’s why young people are prioritizing “earning and learning” over starting or finishing their post-secondary education.

However, most companies still operate like everything is predictable. They apply a paternalist approach — “I know what’s best for you” — rather than helping employees deal with an uncertain career world.

People want to be in charge of their careers but also expect more active coaching from their employers. Organizations should help them uncover what’s next for them even if that means they will end leaving.

Sounds counterintuitive, right?

Well, organizations need to understand that they don’t control people. Employees will leave either way because they are not excited about their current jobs. By providing the right space and tools, you can help them fall in love again with their careers. Providing the right coaching helps (re)ignite the fire with their current job.

The corporate ladder needs a full makeover.

Embrace an Adaptive Mindset to Career Development

“The world doesn’t care what you know. What the world cares about is what you do with what you know.” — Tony Wagner

Many employees feel stuck at work for different reasons. Top performers don’t feel challenged by the opportunities their bosses offer them. Those that are getting close to retirement need a new challenge, not just wait to “be retired.” Helping your employees find what’s next is a win-win solution.

Organizations that encourage career development are more valued by employees; it can increase loyalty by four times as per a Right Management study.

Organizations need to shift from a job-focused to a people-centered career planning.

This means adapting positions or roles to the person, rather than the other way around. How companies use titles limits people’s potential rather than enabling possibilities, as I explained here.

Most people don’t need opportunities or new positions. They need help to understand what they want. When one lacks clarity, it’s hard to find job satisfaction.

  • Meaning-driven: People want to do work that connects to their purpose. However, 50% of Americans don’t find meaning at work. Employees who derive meaning from their work outperform others; showing 1.7 X higher job satisfaction and 1.4 X higher engagement with their career.
  • Uncovering: Applying human-centered design and empathy research, we organizations can help employees reconnect with their purpose as well as discover what’s next. Understand what really moves people rather than try to find what position is the right for them.
  • Fluid Mobility: Companies realize that moving up is no longer the only way to grow. The need to be challenged, to learn something new, and doing meaningful work is opening more possibilities. Many might seek a new profession, not just to switch departments.
  • Multifaceted: Careers are no longer linear and predictable. Taking a sabbatical to study, or stepping down from a position to focus on what matters most is becoming a frequent practice. Also, the future is not the only thing uncertain; people’s desires and interests change through time.

5 Ways to Embrace an Adaptive Mindset

“Change is the only constant. Every experiment is a chance to learn what works and what doesn’t.” — Jacob Morgan

1. Create a Safe Space for Dialogue

Transparency and Psychological safety are critical to promoting honest conversations. It’s not easy for employees to tell their manager that they don’t know what’s next.

When one part is afraid of speaking up, don’t expect a relationship to go anywhere.

How does your organization coach managers to have this ‘difficult’ conversations? How do you as a leader promote trust and honest conversation? Most managers realize how bad people felt once they are about to leave.

2. Help People Reconnect with Their Purpose

People used to manage their careers on autopilot. The world is full of possibilities. To help people to reflect on what drives them now, not when they started their career, is a life-changing experience.

Even a simple exercise like drawing a ‘Career Journey Map’ reveals unexpected insights about the highs and lows of someone’s career. It also helps reconnect with their purpose and realize that they don’t to manage their career in cruise control (learn more here).

3. Prepare Managers to Be More Adaptive

Being more adaptive is not just an HR thing, managers need to adopt that mindset too. They need to involve more, be more empathetic, and learn to embrace a culture of abundance, not one of control.

Organizations worry most about keeping positions filled than on helping people progress.

Managers should spend more time understanding what drives their team. It will save them the time they waste dealing with everyone’s frustration. Bosses need to stop protecting their turf and let employees explore new paths even if it’s not ‘convenient’ for them.

Companies can train managers to become mentors and help people explore new career paths. Maybe coaching and inspiring other teams, not just theirs. Their experience and personal journey are an asset that is underutilized.

4. Help Repurpose Skills and Experience

Updating skills and learning new ones is essential to stay up to date. But, that’s not the biggest challenge.

How can employees leverage what they know and what they are good at, to do something different?

Promoting the idea of fluid mobility is not enough. Most people — and their managers — limit their potential because they get stuck in ‘what they know.’ If one person is a great software engineer that doesn’t mean she is only good at coding. How can she turn her ability to analyze data into something else?

5. Provide Space for Experimentation:

Allow people to “taste and try before they buy.” Shadowing other employees or creating internal apprenticeships are just examples of how people can experience first hand what it entails to do other jobs.

I remember a financial executive who wanted to go back to college and study medicine. We advised him to shadow a doctor to see how it felt to walk in his shoes. He immediately changed his mind after realizing he couldn’t deal with blood.

Exchanges with other industries or organization types are great for both learning and motivation. Creating apprenticeships in startups and social impact organizations is a natural first step, in my experience. It helps people observe new things as well as understand that, sometimes, they can find somewhere else what they are missing in their current job.

Help your team reignite the fire. That could mean falling in love again with their job. Or with a new one. Or that want to find a new career. You never know.

We live in a world of uncertainty. The only thing for sure is that we can’t take what employees need for granted.

Organizations need to get involved helping their employees uncover what’s next. Otherwise, you’ll be like most bosses who realize what their teams want, once they cross the office door for the last time.

Upgrade Your Corporate Ladder

Join our free webinar on redefining careers in an era of uncertainty.

Answer this short survey about career change(confidential). Share it with your team members too.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 302,119+ people.

Subscribe to receive our top stories here.