Not everyone wants to be a manager or should be one. Lots of people are more comfortable as subject matter experts, sole contributors, or administrators than as implementers. Not everyone needs multiple promotions to feel satisfied and productive.

And while some people do pursue a career trajectory based on a dream they’ve cherished since childhood, many more find their path through a combination of accident and serendipity. But when the only route to employee growth is up through the existing hierarchy, numerous employees eventually feel stalled, and consider leaving to seek their career aspirations.

Context Is Everything

When employees understand how their role fits within the larger business, they’re more likely to recognize the contribution they’re making and more likely to want to keep making it — or take an even larger role. And when the organization responds to employees’ needs for growth and meaning, both the workplace and its opportunities become more desirable to incumbents as well as potential applicants.

This ongoing exchange supports a virtuous cycle of retention, productivity, growth, and satisfaction for all parties. Here’s some preparation for the dialog, whether you’re the employee or the employer.

Career Questions For Employees

Whatever role you find yourself in right now, are you in a company that treats you as a valued individual and helps you see what your next growth step could be? Are you offered meaningful experiences in which your participation makes a difference? Do you feel a sense of accomplishment?

Growth often comes from learning more than one thing: Is there enough personal opportunity for you to feel challenged and stretched without falling on your face? Are you shown new skills and ways of thinking?

Are there “elders” in your company — not necessarily just your boss, but mentors — who help you with self-development and strengthening your emotional intelligence and workplace savvy? Are you encouraged to develop relationships with peers, both inside and outside the company to help broaden your perspectives, and with technical experts to ensure that you learn what’s up-to-date in your field? And are you, in turn, able to contribute to others’ success and development?

Career Positioning For Employers

Both HR leaders and functional managers should demonstrate interest in employees, helping them feel recognized and supported, and take care to explain their career opportunities and choices. Stay in close touch about their goals, both personal and work-related, and offer them the best-matched choices of roles, taking into consideration the style and nature of a given job, the colleagues involved, and the lifestyle choices it might offer.

Be sensitive to where and how your employees want to grow, both within your organizational chart and as part of the larger labor market. Ensure that they learn cross-functional skills to create additional prospects for both personal development and job progress.

Most companies now require career “lattices” as well as ladders to provide sufficient opportunity and sense of movement in today’s shallower, flatter organizations. High-potential staffers may need formal outside training, but all employees need mentoring, preferably by executives who not only know the business of the business, but have also successfully navigated a variety of interpersonal and organizational challenges throughout their careers.