Building Career Paths…Without Breaking The Bank


Are your people asking for a career path? Many companies are trying to build career paths because people are crying for them. It’s usually in response to an engagement survey and done with a fair amount of urgency because employees are upset that they don’t have a proverbial career path. Some have spent millions of dollars building career paths for every department or buying a system to help people determine their career path. The other day I even previewed a software package that was essentially a database of different career paths. You could enter your title and the system would give you a list of potential jobs that people with your title had taken as their next step. Better yet, you could enter the job title of your dreams and it would give you a roadmap with options for how to get there from the job you’re in today. It was truly amazing! I have a hypothesis though. I believe that when people are crying out for career paths, what they really want is three very simple things – very little of which requires anymore than a great dialog with their manager.

Essentially, they want to:

  • Know what is next for them
  • Have a plan in place to get there
  • Know that their boss believes they can get there and will help them

Building career paths is easy when you have high critical mass type roles…take sales for example. A sales representative might become a store manager, then a district manager, a regional manager, and then become VP of sales. That’s easy to draw. A financial analyst might become a finance manager, a functional CFO, and CFO with a bigger internal client, and later a VP of Finance or a CFO. Some areas are easy. But in many complex matrix organizations, moving around to different departments is critical to building the general management skills necessary for any senior role. In those cases, next steps are not so obvious and it becomes near impossible to tell people what their career path is. At that point, what is the company’s role and how far do you need to go in providing people with their career paths?

Let’s face it – building career paths isn’t an easy exercise. In my humble opinion, companies owe employees a dialog with their manager about their goals and how to get there; at least once a year. Employees owe it to themselves (and their company) to think this through and have a perspective. After all, it’s their life; even if that life eventually must leave the company to accomplish their goals. Companies, however, can facilitate this process with some simple tools, which I recommend:

  • Equip managers to have a productive dialog with each employee about what’s next for them and what they need to do to get there. This dialog should take into account their performance, skills and abilities while creating learning opportunities for both parties.
  • Equip employees to think 3-5 years out in their career and determine where they want to go. Make it safe for them to do informational interviews or job-shadowing to understand potential next roles.
  • Encourage lateral moves to enable employees to deepen skills and broaden their business acumen, particularly in small companies where vertical advancement is limited.
  • Encourage employees to create realistic development plans to help them build skills to get to the next step.
  • Post the career paths of senior executives as examples of how people got where they are. Point out lateral moves, steps backward, moves requiring extreme flexibility, or stretch assignments as examples.
  • Make it safe to take as risk on a stretch assignment. Don’t penalize employees for the lessons that come with failure while stretching.

How do you set goals for your employees to build their career paths?