“The organization says it’s all about supporting my career development...but only if it’s convenient and fits into their tidy process.”
—An employee (perhaps yours)
What individual managers do matters. A lot. Their intentions, relationships, and interactions contribute to a tone within the organization. And they can change the lives of those who work for them. Being heard. Being recognized. Being valued. Being trusted. Being developed. This resonates deeply with employees. And this is what happens when managers commit to a regular cadence of career conversations. Yet, if one manager’s efforts can have such an influence at the individual level, imagine the effect of a constructive organizational culture on your workforce as a whole.
Culture counts when it comes to career development
When culture aligns with and supports development, it creates a synergist tsunami, sweeping layers of leadership, policies and practices, and fundamental sensibilities up and washing them all over the organization. Stragglers can’t hold out for long. They either join in or choose to go elsewhere.
And, in the process, the organization as a whole reaps the benefits of highly effective career development. Engagement. Customer satisfaction. Discretionary effort. Sales. Innovation. Retention. Quality. Productivity. Reputation. Loyalty. Profitability.
Cultures that actively support career development and enjoy its constructive by-products might look very different on the outside. They can be for-profit or not-for-profit. They can be product or service oriented. They can be large or small. High-tech or low-tech. Private or public. But, under the veneer, these organizations share five fundamental characteristics or cultural markers.
1. Create a workplace culture that is information-rich
Career development flourishes in an environment of openness and transparency. Information flows freely. Which is essential because information about performance, perceptions, and possibilities is precisely what employees need to own their development and to drive it forward. That means the job requirements, competencies, and ways to develop them are accessible to everyone. That means that managers and leaders at all levels make feedback and coaching a top priority. That means that employees are never left wondering about how they’re currently doing or what steps they need to take to grow. When this happens, trust inspires an upward spiral of truth-telling and information sharing.
Want to cultivate greater information richness within your organization? Try this:
- Demonstrate candor and tell the truth; and recognize others who do the same.
- Generously share information about the organization’s strategy and plans.
- Practice open-book management and make financial data available to all employees.
- Make foresight an ongoing conversation to ensure that everyone understands the big picture.
- Offer feedback and coaching to others—and demonstrate what it looks like to receive it as well.
2. Encourage curiosity and experimentation
Just as curiosity fuels an effective career conversation, it also fuels a development-supportive culture. You see it when leaders bring genuine inquisitiveness to their interactions with others. Or when “seeking out diverse points of view” is not a talking point but instead the whole point of dialogue. Or when those deemed as troublemakers in other organizations—the people who have a reputation for asking why and why not—aren’t marginalized but are instead well regarded in the organization. Or when people are routinely encouraged to take risks...and are not punished when experiments don’t play out exactly as planned.
Want to cultivate greater curiosity within your organization? Try this:
- Shift your conversational cadence to include more questions and fewer statements.
- Actively—and visibly—seek out contrarians and welcome devil’s advocates.
- Challenge yourself to look at people and situations with fresh eyes.
- Celebrate smart risks run afoul and dispassionately debrief them with the spirit of discovery.
- Dramatically expand your repertoire of possibility questions such as "What if?," "How might it work?," and "How can we?"
3. Be patient with the career development process
In today’s environment, where results are monitored by the hour and long term means next week, patience is in short supply. But managers and leaders who make career development a reality rather than a rallying slogan appreciate the value in focusing on a slightly longer horizon. They don’t need to wrap things up immediately. Rather, they allow thoughts, ideas, and opportunities to evolve organically over time. They appreciate that everyone grows at their own rate and in their own way and flex accordingly. Flexibility, commitment, and consistency are the hallmarks of this cultural characteristic.
Want to cultivate greater patience with the development process within your organization? Try this:
- Challenge yourself and others to balance long-term development goals with more
- short-term, pressing business needs.
- Welcome mistakes and failures as valuable steps in the learning process.
- Take a “time-released” approach to development, making small, ongoing investments in others over time versus dispensing a massive occasional dose.
- Give people the space to attain their comfortable level of competence before pressing them forward.
- Set aside, prioritize, and protect the funds required for development...every single fiscal period.
4. Make career conversations results-oriented
Development is a big-picture game. What are we trying to achieve? What are our goals? Focusing broadly on results—and being less rigid (within reason) about how they are accomplished—provides a wide berth within which employees can experiment, try out new talents and skills, approach tasks differently, and grow their capacity. Leadership clarity about the what can allow for more creativity and flexibility around the how, creating countless vehicles for growth.
Want to cultivate a greater results orientation within your organization? Try this:
- Routinely ask employees how best to achieve organizational goals—and then give them the authority and autonomy to run with viable ideas.
- Actively engage those closest to the work in developing new procedures, systems, and tools to improve the process.
- Celebrate and promote examples of employee initiative and innovation.
- Be open to experimenting with different structures and approaches . . . just as long as they are designed to deliver necessary results.
5. Cultivate dynamic development boundaries
Cultures that support career development tend to have leaders with very blurry vision. In this case, though, blurry vision doesn’t require a doctor’s visit; on the contrary, it’s quite healthy. Rather than seeing hard lines between departments or divisions, these leaders see opportunities to collaborate. Instead of us and them, they see how all of us are in this together. Rather than looking out for themselves, these leaders look out for the enterprise. They actively encourage development because they can look outside of their own areas for opportunities for their people to learn, contribute, and grow. They’re willing to move people around and even lose good talent to their colleagues as a way to support the development of employees. And in the process, these sorts of leaders build an unbeatable reputation, culture, and organization.
Want to cultivate blurrier boundaries within your organization? Try this:
- Get to know your colleagues in other areas of the business and learn about contributions to the organization and the challenges they face.
- Demonstrate respect for other leaders in all you say and do.
- Expose employees to other parts of the organization as much and as frequently as possible.
- Squash even hints of territorialism and competition with other departments before they take hold.
- Seek out collaboration with colleagues that offer development experiences for your staff.
Organizations that reflect these characteristics are serious about career development. And, just as careers develop one conversation at a time over time, cultures develop over time through the consistent commitment of individual developmentally minded managers. This is clearly something organizations need and employees want.
What would your organization look like IF?...
- Everyone at every level was held accountable for career development?
- Talent was really treated like an enterprise-wide resource?
- Career development was tracked and reported right alongside other important business metrics?
- Development became your organization’s secret weapon for attracting and retaining top talent?
The above is an adapted excerpt from the bestselling book, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go by Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni.
Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning. Named one of Inc. magazine's top 100 leadership speakers, she consults, teaches, speaks, and writes about career development and a variety of workplace topics.