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The secrets to great career pathing

What do you envision when you hear someone mention career pathing? 

Depending where you’ve been and where you hope to go, the answer may vary. At its core, organizational career pathing is about creating new opportunities. Even if the opportunity may not be immediate, or traditional, the perception of opportunity is essential to staving off employee disengagement.

Turning that perception into reality is another story—and a priority the best HR and People Ops professionals spend countless hours trying to get right. 

A sound career pathing blueprint starts with the right questions. Those include, but aren’t limited to:

  • What does successful career pathing look like here?
  • What does our personal development program entail?
  • How does career pathing vary for different ambitions?
  • Does our talent strategy align with our growth goals?

Let’s dive into each of these, with an eye toward answers that any people strategy leader—regardless of company size or industry—can apply. 

What does successful career pathing look like here?

Effective career pathing programs are often about transparency and action. Organizations that see success have sound training and development, but also a good grasp of their own values

And they often start with the teams or departments that have the most members. Those are the ones arguably most in need. If the individuals who make up the more crowded groups don’t see a clear path—or paths—toward development, they could be quicker to look for opportunities elsewhere.

You need to look at your own house and decide where the priorities lie. Have you collected engagement data? Conducted a talent review? What do you know about team morale?  If you’re seeing themes emerge—people citing lack of opportunity, or ambiguity around their roles—start there. You can’t very well create a ladder if you’re not on sturdy ground.

Not every team needs the same paths, and mobility can happen in different directions. Consider job descriptions (rather than requirements) that prioritize the behavioral traits needed to excel in the role. In doing so, you open up the candidate pool and enable new career paths. 

The best people may already be in your organization. Cross-departmental possibilities are important. If your culture and identity are strong, you know who you have in-house. If you’ve hired for behavioral fit, you’ll often incur less risk promoting from within. But you still need the right people in the right roles to truly practice talent optimization. 

team collaboration

What does our personal development program entail?

Think about the resources and options that exist in your organization. Are they comprehensive? Scalable? 

Doing more for employees’ personal development doesn’t necessarily mean spending more. Upskilling is part of the equation, too. Managers can work with their employees to determine what goals they set, and what more they might need to achieve them. 

But don’t mistake engagement for personal development. You might be able to measure and quantify the former through an employee engagement survey—the latter is going to look different for each individual. Checking in with team members once a month to run through their to-dos does not in itself constitute professional development. 

Encourage managers to challenge people without putting too much pressure on them. Think about PD goals in terms of aptitudes and competencies. Get people asking: What do I want to be really good at? If the answer makes them better at their current job, great, but it doesn’t have to. 

When you encourage people to set goals that might stretch them, both behaviorally and in terms of their practical skill set, you’re building leaders at all levels. And companies that promote leadership throughout the organization are better equipped to withstand adversity and change. 

How does career pathing vary for different ambitions?

Not everyone wants to be a manager. There are plenty of examples of first-time managers who were promoted mainly because they were competent in their previous positions. But they’re not successful managing people—often because it’s not a good behavioral fit. 

This person usually pursues the managerial role because they view it as one of the few opportunities for internal advancement. If that becomes a trend within your organizational design, it’s a recipe for resentment, and eventually turnover. 

Fortunately, there are solutions. First, reshape your definition of “management.” You can manage other things besides people. For example, you can oversee:

  • Projects
  • Initiatives
  • Systems
  • Partnerships

Consider these options when you have a strong individual contributor whose interests or behavioral strengths don’t align with traditional or existing management roles. Tie the opportunity to a goal or ambition they’ve expressed. In doing so, you’re developing leadership traits while acting on their developmental priorities, fostering both engagement and growth. 

You can also implement rubrics and other forms of talent architecture designed to flex people’s developmental muscles in new ways. Again, consider their strongest behavioral drives as you hash these out. Maybe that means someone with high extraversion leads a workshop, or a team member with a higher formality drive draws up remote-work guidelines for the group.

How to build leadership capacity

Does our talent strategy align with our growth goals? 

Many organizations talk about their growth mindset. And when they do, the implication is often that growth is correlated mostly with revenue, expansion, and scale. 

But a growth mindset, when properly employed at every level, can also do wonders for your engagement and personal development priorities. That means not just promoting the growth of the broader organization, but also the people of which it’s composed. In addition to presenting leadership opportunities that cater to people’s behavioral strengths, managers can: 

  • Praise and reward extra effort.
  • Encourage appropriate risk-taking.
  • Allow for errors of action. 
  • Highlight individual success that furthers company-wide goals.

This is where your people strategy sets the tone. If HR is not just espousing a growth mindset, but also practicing it, that will permeate the rest of the organization. Middle management will start to do the same. And morale will receive a boost because of the perception that growth benefits everyone, on every level. 

For this to happen, your people strategy needs to be aligned with your business strategy. HR has to have a seat at the executive table. People problems are business problems, even when they might not feel quite so pressing.

If your approach to growth focuses on your people as much as your clients, partners, or budget, you’ll not only find yourself with less turnover—you’ll start to see leaders emerge at every level. That’s the sort of talent strategy that lends to true, scalable growth.


Will is the Director of Talent Optimization at PI.

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