Given repeated rounds of downsizing, reorganizing, right sizing, and all of the other ‘zings’ that have befallen organizations, it’s easy to scan the landscape and come to the conclusion that career development options have shrunk… that they are few and far between for most employees. After all:

  • Delayering has left already lean organizations with fewer stops along the food chain.
  • Organizations continue to pursue outsourcing in the eternal quest for cost reduction.
  • Baby boomers are not only having the audacity to live longer… but they’re also working longer and occupying chairs that in the past would have been vacated for others.
  • Mergers and acquisitions continue to surface and systematically remove ‘redundancies’ (i.e. – people who were previously able to contribute their talents to the enterprise).

It would be easy to declare career development DOA, an artifact of those charming days gone by, and a reality that we’ll all just have to get used to in business today. But, employees are not getting used to it. In fact, study after study reveals that lack of growth opportunities and career progression top the list of reasons employees (likely the ones an organization really wants to keep) quit.

Painting a New Picture

The problem, however, is not with the business landscape… it’s with how we’re interpreting it and how we choose to define ‘career development.’ Clearly, gone are the days of the reliable career ladder, the system by which employees could expect that every 18 or so months they’d be invited to take yet another step upward toward their ultimate next big job. Today’s business environment demands that we replace our old definitions and pictures of career development.

Progressive organizations are burying the ladder and introducing models that are more reflective of today’s reality. Examples include: climbing walls, lattices, jungle gyms (and full playgrounds for that matter), spider webs, and a big ol’ plate of spaghetti. What do they have in common? They’re more fluid and organic. They emphasize lateral and horizontal exploration versus a myopic focus upward. And they all acknowledge the reality that interesting work, terrific contribution, and growth can happen right where one is without the need to ‘move’ anywhere.

Savvy managers and leaders are figuring out how to turn existing roles into development opportunities. And this resonates with employees. A recent survey conducted by BlessingWhite found that 87% of employees polled agreed that “I don’t think there is anything wrong with staying in the same job if I can try new things or develop my skills.”

Developing in place offers countless benefits… to the organization and the individual. Engagement. Skill acquisition. Greater effectiveness. Expanded contribution. Bench strength.

And there are countless ways for employees to grow without changing offices, business cards, or roles. Consider any of the following:

And that doesn’t even scratch the surface. The options for developing in place are limited only by the commitment and creativity of the managers and employees involved.

But it’s not just about working one-on-one with employees. Development is scalable when leaders take deliberate steps to cultivate a culture that allows everyone to enjoy the kind of growth that encourages engagement, retention, and contribution by:

  • Engaging in regular, short, frequent conversations about goals, interests, accomplishments, and needs.
  • Sharing big picture information about the organization, its challenges, direction, and needs.
  • Encouraging internal collaboration, social networks, learning circles, and peer networking.
  • Mining experiences for teaching value with simple questions like, ‘what did you learn from that?’

But the first – and most important – task is to redefine career development. As soon as we let go of the ladder, we’ll find ourselves squarely in today’s reality, a reality that offers unlimited opportunity for everyone to grow… right where they are currently planted.

What about you? What’s your current definition of career development?

Image courtesy of basketman at