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When Building Career Paths, Think Milton Bradley, Not Rand McNally

A career isn’t a map, which is why organizations need to change how they think about career paths.
When Building Career Paths, Think Milton Bradley, Not Rand McNally

Milton Bradley, as many of us fondly remember, makes timeless and beloved board games like Life, Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, and of course, Monopoly. Rand McNally makes maps and (since the GPS revolution) directional guidance systems. Substantially less beloved, though very useful.

These products don’t have much to do with careers, but they do have a lot to do with paths, and in our Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015, which drew on data from more than 13,000 leaders from 48 countries, we isolated understanding one’s career path as the single strongest influence on three key leader outcomes. As shown below, a clear path—along with having opportunities to give open feedback to senior leaders about the organization’s strategy and culture—was one of only two leadership experiences to be a top driver of all three outcomes. These outcomes include Employee Development Focus (active pursuit of opportunities to develop one’s employees), Engagement (leaders’ own involvement in the job), and Retention (leaders’ intent to remain at the organization long-term).

Building Career Paths

Strongest Influences on Employee Development Focus, Retention, and Engagement

As we looked more closely at this data, we wanted to know: If career pathing is so essential, under what conditions does it flourish? The deeper we dug, the more the data kept directing us to concepts alive and well in games like the ones mentioned above—but nearly gone from road atlases or mobile navigation apps.

Certainly, a career isn’t a “game,” but it’s even less so a fixed map, where distance and time to reach a pre-determined destination can be projected down to the meter and minute. Because of this, we can learn much more from the way Milton Bradley designs timeless board games than we can from how Rand McNally plots (and constantly updates) highways, cities, and landmarks.

The Five Keys to Career Pathing Success

In our data analysis, we saw related themes pop up over and over again in each of two ways we took the Global Leadership Forecast research further.

First, for leaders who DO clearly understand their career trajectory, how do organizations “set up the board” to get them there? Our research found five keys to career pathing success for these organizations—in each case, those taking these steps have leaders with significantly higher levels of career path clarity:

  1. Clearly defining the competencies leaders need to be successful. This one is simple: Without knowing what the best player of a game does differently from the rest (and how much is due purely to luck), it’s impossible for leaders to come up with a strategy for getting and applying these skills. Importantly, competencies—as opposed to knowledge or technical skills—extend beyond individual jobs, to avoid a myopic focus on a single “best fit” career track.
  2. Training managers to identify and develop future talent. Creating and reinforcing career plans for ambitious leaders is a distinct and extremely challenging skill for managers, especially when ambiguity is the reality. Companies that do this well don’t make leaders figure out the rules on their own; instead, they put programs in place to hone in on this topic so that managers know how to keep leaders moving and to spot and take advantage when new paths unexpectedly open up.
  3. Having deeply rooted coaching and mentoring networks in place. These include one’s own manager of course, but also other internal and external mentors who have “played the game” and who can objectively advise on options for what’s next—especially what to do when rolls of the dice don’t go a leader’s way or a move leads to a disappointing dead-end.
  4. Developing managers to lead across generations. Millennial leaders value having an awareness of a range of possible paths that may lie ahead—NOT a single route from point A to point B as on a map. Managers need the know-how to tap into this motivator, as well as those that are important to other generational groups, and to flex their coaching styles accordingly.
  5. Deploying a broad range of developmental assignments. Special projects and rotational assignments provide concrete yet temporary opportunities for career exploration, which, when designed well, these “detours” are almost always win-win. They allow leaders that are promising to move on—perhaps even using a newly discovered shortcut. For those that aren’t, they can easily take a couple of steps back and try something else.

These five talent practices differentiate organizations leading the way with high-caliber career pathing for their leaders, from those falling behind and absorbing the dangerous consequences impacting leader engagement, retention, and passion for development. Each practice also has a clear “Now What” implication for other companies facing similar challenges, as outlined above.

This is an important part of the story, but we also wanted to dive even deeper—and explore what the many, very vocal, leaders who are struggling with career clarity need from their organizations.

The Leader’s View of Career Pathing

We looked further behind the numbers to hear from the most frustrated set of the 13,000+ leaders included in the research—to ascertain what they needed to regain confidence in their organization’s career pathing efforts. Leaders disappointed with their career guidance were very vocal about what must change—generating plenty of useful, constructive feedback for organizations.

What do these disgruntled leaders want their organizations to hear about career pathing do’s and don’ts? Four words captured the spirit of their suggestions:

  • Expectations—Give the basics about what’s realistic for me to consider and prepare for; should I only be thinking of moves straight up a ladder, or do many people move sideways? Are moves regularly spaced or are there times when I’m likely to plateau for a while before moving again? Do I have skill gaps that I absolutely must close before I can pursue a particular path?
  • Aspirations—Ask me, don’t assume, where I want to be several steps from now. My manager should know and help me work towards these goals, of course, but should also support me in finding other mentors within the company too; I’ll tell them things I wouldn’t tell my manager.
  • Transparency—I won’t commit long-term unless I know where we’re headed and how I fit in. Tell me what you can or risk me assuming that there’s a mismatch between my personal goals and the company’s overall strategy…and quitting before you can prove me wrong.
  • Exposure—Connect me to senior leaders for their advice and perspective on how I can grow within the company to help it succeed—this may mean moving ahead on my current path or moving to another track where my skills will add value, and I may make faster long-term progress.

On the surface, many of these sentiments lead back to a “roadmap” model where leaders expect organizations to be definitive about what’s next and when. But that viewpoint isn’t giving leaders nearly enough credit. Leaders—particularly those getting open information about the organization’s status and their own strengths and weaknesses—fully recognize that risk, uncertainty, and even randomness play key roles in what paths open up, and how long they stay open.

Which brings us back to the board game analogy: Leaders moving down a path won’t always know exactly where that path leads, or how long it will take to get there. For HR or their managers to promise them otherwise would be unrealistic and demotivating. But what HR and managers can offer is attentiveness, connectivity to the business, and most importantly, openness: about formal and informal rules, about chance versus skill, about next steps in a career sometimes being sideways or even backward, and about balancing a single, long-term goal with awareness that there are many ways to get from here to there.

Ultimately, the dice go in the leader’s hand—but before they roll, it’s the job of HR and managers to set up a board that leaders will find explanatory, reinforcing, and engaging—no matter what numbers come up.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is DDI’s chief scientist and director of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).


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