7 Deadly Sins of Career Development

You’ll never retain your brightest rising stars if you commit these strategic blunders.

By Beverly Kaye, Ph.D., and Lindy Williams

Breaking news: Career development drives employee engagement. Shocking, right?

Well, if loads of surveys and studies repeatedly list the opportunity to grow and develop as an essential factor in attracting and retaining talent—and trust us, we’ve seen ’em all—then why do organizations continue to ignore the obvious and struggle to deliver on their promise of growth? What, exactly, stands in the way?

Through decades of work with clients across a wide range of industries, we’ve identified seven decision points that often cause even the most enthusiastic companies to pause or stumble on the road to making career development a part of their culture. Commit these costly sins at your own peril.

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Deadly Sin #1: Fuzzy Accountability

We ask almost every leader we meet the same question: “How do you hold individuals accountable for career development?” Their responses leave a lot to be desired, from “It’s an item on our leadership competency list” to “We don’t.”

The accountability dilemma is twofold: Should leaders be held accountable for their employees’ career development? Or should that fall on the employees themselves?

Let’s look first at the leader question. The manager-employee relationship is routinely highlighted in research to be a major factor in engagement and job satisfaction. If we couple the significance of the relationship with findings that place career development high on the list of employees’ critical factors, it stands to reason to combine the two.

When we ensure leaders are ready, willing, and able to support employees’ career development through ongoing conversation, coaching, and dialogue, we’re creating a win for the organization, the leader, and the employee.

We’ve all seen leaders who are naturally good at this. Ask them their secret and make others responsible for those same behaviors. Are managers at all levels holding career conversations? Are they making talent available for other experiences that will result in learning or growth? Do they know the career aspirations of their direct reports?

The second accountability question can seem trickier. We hear leaders grapple with whether individuals can or should be held accountable for career development. Keeping skills up to date in order to meet performance expectations is clear, but including the word “career” makes the answer less certain. 

Think about it like this: Careers aren’t simply predictable steps up a ladder. They take twists and turns and sometimes hover in place. Holding individuals accountable for their own career development doesn’t mean insisting they identify moves they want to make or positions they plan to pursue. 

When leaders adopt a view of careers that’s flexible enough to embrace not only upward progression aspirations, but also growth in place and ongoing learning, they’ll be able to identify factors of individual accountability. Do your employees have career conversations with their leaders? Have they identified the experiences that will keep them growing?

As with any expectation and accountability plan, you need to address skill gaps. If leaders aren’t having conversations because they don’t know how, help them build that skill. If employees don’t know how to identify options or create and manage meaningful career journeys for themselves, it’s the leader’s responsibility to ensure they have opportunities to learn and resources to support them.

Deadly Sin #2: Premature Satisfaction

When you’ve implemented an impeccably designed career development strategy, celebrations are in order. Ditto when a survey indicates that you’ve moved the needle and created a more positive response to items about career growth and opportunity. But despite a job well done, your job isn’t, well, done.

The reality? Your workforce is changing. Your workplace is changing—now more than ever thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The opportunities for career growth that will be available next year will be different than what was available last year—possibly even last month.

From a practical perspective, the resources, learning experiences, and messaging that make up your career development strategy need to be reviewed and refreshed regularly. You wouldn’t allow your product development to fall behind the marketplace or your technology strategy to languish. So don’t let your career development strategy fall behind.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to keep career development evergreen. While each employee must make his or her own career choices, you must let your people know the opportunities that are available to them now and later. You hold and shape the vision of the future for your organization. That vision can be the inspirational driver that keeps your talent inside your walls. 

When an organization’s leaders articulate how outside forces may impact future direction, how internal changes will play out, and how the culture will shift, employees will be drawn into the story. 

Deadly Sin #3: Mixed Messaging

We’ve heard leaders complain that their organizations spend top dollar on cutting-edge career development resources, only for the tools to go largely unused. Upon further investigation, we’ve found that while the process or products were announced to the intended end-users, the context was missing. The accessibility was confusing.

Fanfare often accompanies product rollouts and systems changes. Banners appear in hallways. Messages show up in emails and news feeds. The problem: Career development initiatives are sometimes delivered with minimal or unfocused communication strategies.

Leveraging occasions like a “career fair” can highlight and remind employees of existing or new resources, but relegating communications solely to these types of events presents the process as an add-on that warrants occasional, but not necessarily consistent, attention.

If you’re rolling out a newly designed career development strategy, carefully and deliberately address the why, what, and how to position the process as a fundamental element that supports your organization’s goals. If you’re trying to drum up a career development strategy that’s already in place, include the language of careers within existing communications vehicles along with messages about other core processes. That way you’ll solidify the strategy’s prioritization.

And don’t forget: Your story is powerful. Your employees listen to you and watch your actions closely. Even if they don’t aspire to one day hold your job, they want to know your career story. Embedding stories of your career journey in town halls, newsletters, and podcasts demonstrates your understanding of what a career entails and clarifies the organization’s philosophy of growth and development.

When employees see you paying attention to your own career patterns, acknowledging the importance of development, and sharing what and how you’ve learned while navigating your career, they’ll understand how much your company values career development.

Deadly Sin #4: Fake Problems

“It’s ___ ’s problem.” We’ve all seen the blank in this statement filled in multiple ways, from “the employee”—after all, it’s his career, or it’s her future—to “HR.”

Truth is, career development (or the absence of it) isn’t a “problem” to be fixed. Instead, it’s an important element in the journey to maximizing individual capability, engagement, and contribution. 

If career development is underappreciated, then an opportunity exists to examine how this type of development contributes to—or, if lacking, detracts from—the levels of engagement and performance desired and required to meet deliverables and goals. Career development can be a lever that moves the needle on employee satisfaction and positively impacts customer or client experience.

So if career development isn’t actually a problem, then whose opportunity is it? The answer: Everyone’s. At the individual level, career development offers a focus on creating career patterns that are better matches to skills, interests, and values.

Employees who receive support and encouragement for their professional growth and permission to candidly discuss aspirations are more likely to respond positively to learning new skills and stretching to meet goals.

Meanwhile, leaders who understand the opportunity of career development recognize how professional growth, broadening the talent base, and sharing talent can make a team more effective. A leader’s involvement in career conversations builds trust and sends the message that the leader and organization are interested in the employee’s future.

Deadly Sin #5: Unclear Ownership

Processes like product development, customer acquisition, and performance management have comfortable homes and clear owners. But career development is only occasionally assigned a permanent spot of its own.

The strategy may be tucked inside leadership development, where it can sometimes take a backseat to high potential programs, or placed under learning and development’s wing, where it can easily lose to technical training in the battle for resources and attention.

Some very successful career development programs have emerged within operations areas, funded by the functions that stand to benefit most directly in terms of improved engagement and reductions in voluntary attrition. However, these locally funded initiatives too often fade or stall when implementation and rollout moves on to maintenance mode.

The consequence: Resources are no longer continuously available for an effort that isn’t central to the operations groups’ core deliverables.

So who owns career development? If the results of an effective career development strategy are measured in terms of improvements in productivity, engagement, retention, and capability, the answer is leadership. Setting strategy for how your talent will continue to grow and adapt in parallel with the organization’s future is clearly a leadership responsibility.

In tandem with your support, any and all groups where those factors contribute to goal achievement are responsible for supporting the effort. 

Deadly Sin #6: Narrow Focus

Some of your employees are just starting their careers, some are in the midst, and others are wondering what’s next. If your career development strategy focuses only on specific groups—like the employees you’ve identified as “high potentials”—you’re missing the boat. And you may be turning talented people, whom we call “high pros,” into your competitors’ recruits.

Remember: Time and time again, employees across many industries list the opportunity to learn and grow professionally as one of their most important reasons for staying with a company. When employees feel like they’re left out of your approach to careers, and that only a handful of employees have futures worth investing in, they’ll disengage.

So widen the net. Consider more than just the usual suspects when building an organizational approach to career development. Rising stars can be found throughout your organization. Search for them. Let them know their careers matter and help them envision their future as a part of your future.

Deadly Sin #7: Great Expectations

“Show me the results.” That statement can make even the most seasoned leader anxious when the results in question are for initiatives targeting soft skills. Career development certainly falls in that category.

The need for a sound career development strategy usually arises from surveys, and occasionally is clarified through focus groups or interviews. The ideal moment for identifying success measures happens when leadership decides to create a strategy. Asking “why?” at that moment, and then digging further into the response, will reveal the factors to track and evaluate. But the answer to how we know it’s working needs to come from you.

If, for instance, the decision to do something about career development was based on less-than-desired engagement survey results in items or a category about career opportunity, consider why that number should be higher or those ratings better.

Ask how an improvement in those indicators tie to other results. Within the answers, you might find links to performance, productivity, or customer experience. The key is to find those indicators and factors that most closely relate to tangible and meaningful results. While a complete return on investment for career development initiatives in isolation is rare, some organizations have built detailed approaches to measuring their results.

Findings have included positive trends in activity measures like internal placements versus external hires and career plans implemented. Bottom-line results have been identified in the area of turnover cost savings. And the most common positive result is in the measures that track employee engagement and satisfaction with the opportunities for growth and development.

Career development can be measured. Just as with any initiative of this type, it’s difficult to attribute changes exclusively to the programs included in the effort. But returning to the original drivers for the initiative—studying what drew your attention to the issue to begin with—will uncover the measures that you know are most important.

Beverly Kaye, Ph.D., the founder of Career Systems International, is a respected thought leader and coauthor of several best-selling books, including Up Is Not the Only Way.

Lindy Williams is a designer and senior consultant with Career Systems International. She is the coauthor of Up Is Not the Only Way.