Want to Improve Career Development? Start With Your Managers
How Managers Hold The Key to Employee Career Development
Hello! If you’re new here, drop me a line to say hello. This week’s newsletter is all about unlocking the knowledge and potential of employees.
Career Development Starts With Managers
This week, I spent time facilitating training for 60 emerging leaders. One of the topics that came up in some of our sessions was around the role of the manager in the career development of their employees. In multiple conversations, something to the effect of “I know that I’m supposed to be helping my employees with their career, but I’m still trying to figure out my own” came up in the dialogue.
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This is a common refrain and not surprising, at least from my experience, and after seeing this for many years, I think I’m starting to understand why.
How Do You Learn to Manage Your Career?
In my experience advising organizations and leaders around career related topics, there is absolutely an interest in employees who want to develop and grow their careers. In addition to this, it’s also true that many people struggle with being self-directed on this.
Oftentimes, when I ask leaders how they learned to manage their career, they often say things like “I learned by trial and error, “I’m not sure” or “I’m still figuring it out.” This is not a criticism, if anything, it’s an affirmation of just how challenging it can be to tackle this topic and build the career navigation skills you need to feel confident in you growing your career on your own terms.
While this is a worthwhile challenge to tackle, this is also difficult for another reason: These same leaders are not only responsible for figuring out how to manage their own careers, but they also play a critical role in supporting and co-facilitating the career growth of their employees.
This results in a sort sort of a domino effect - If you have managers who are not confident in their abilities to manage their own careers, and then you put them in a position to support the careers of their direct reports but they don’t know how to do that effectively, it’s easy to see how we get to a point where many people don’t feel supported in their careers.
Conversely, when you have a manager who both knows the steps to take to manage their career, and is actively talking and advocating for it for their employees, it can inspire their employees to do the same.
This is an experience I had early in my career, where I had a string of managers who were constantly championing their people and encouraging them to invest in their career growth, and backing it up by supporting their employees, and also doing the same for themselves.
To be sure, employees are still responsible for their own careers, and even if a manager did feel confident in managing their career, and had an idea of what they wanted to do to support their employees, the individual employee is still on the hook for defining their own aspirations for career growth.
But no singular employee is bigger than the system that they are a part of. And if you’ve never learned how to manage your career because you never were taught, there is an equity and access issue that comes into play.
To illustrate this, I’ll refer to Culture Amp’s 2023 State of The Manager Report and some of their data from the thousands of employee survyeys their software has conducted. (Thank you Fresia Jackson, an Edge of Work Season 2 Guest, for sharing)
Finding #1: Manager Behaviors Instill New Habits in Direct Reports
This finding can be described as “monkey see monkey do.” Culture Amp found if a manager did something first, employees were likely to follow suit, and this was especially true for behaviors like goal setting, providing feedback, and doing a development plan.
This intuitively makes sense - if you see your manager doing something and hear the message that it is a good thing to do, it increases your likelihood of understanding that is something you should do as well.
This has a really important impact for something like career development. If you as a manager are not talking about how you are managing your career, or showing your employees how you are doing it, it’s going to be hard for your employees to embrace it as well. Conversely, if managers are consistently talking about how they are thinking about career growth and then encouraging their employees to do the same, chances are, employees will take that message and follow suit.
Finding #2: Managers aren’t providing their direct reports with the development they crave
Culture Amp found 3 in10 employees say that their manager doesn’t show an interest in their career aspirations, and therefore, also doesn’t help them understand what growth opportunities exist within the company. Many of the areas for improvement for managers solely focused on the career development of the employees. It’s clear that employees care but are searching for help.
So why aren’t managers doing this?
Time - They are overburdened with so many other things, it falls to the wayside. Gartner found in their research that 73% of HR leaders felt managers had too many responsibilities. Something’s gotta give, and oftentimes, it's this
Training - They don’t know what or how to do this effectively. Training is important, but it’s often not enough.
Responsibility - They don’t see it as a core responsibility of their job
Redefining The Role of The Manager
In my recent episode of The Edge of Work, I talked about the concept of redefining the role of the manager for today’s world of work.
While we do know that some of what makes a great manager is timeless, it’s also clear the workplace has changed, and so too must how we manage and lead.
Fixing this is not a simple issue, but I think a good starting point is around redefining the role and expectations of the manager, and making sure that supporting and facilitating the career development of employee’s is included in those responsibilities.
This looks different company to company, but if you want to both engage and retain talent, it’s clear that focusing on career development is important to employees. While that will come from each individual employee, I think it actually starts with redefining the role of the manager, and ensuring that there are responsibilities in that definition for co-sponsoring the career growth of each employee.
Build A System Around Manager Effectiveness
In my conversations with leaders on The Edge of Work around manager development, a common trend among those leading the way is that they view the development of managers like a system, and not just in terms of manager training.
A system encapsulates a bunch of interconnected but separate components that reinforce and support each other inside of the organization. So for example, it’s defining the role, but then reinforcing the role, through other components like
Employee Engagement Surveys
As someone who does manager training for a living, it definitely matters and is important. But training alone is rarely the only answer and is rarely the sole solution in driving performance improvement. Companies that are developing managers effectively recognize management as a critical capability, and thus “thread” it throughout their entire organization
How Managers Can Support Employees in Career Growth
Going back to my conversations in the leader development program, we did spend a little time talking and discussing about what a manager could do if they wanted to support their employees in their career growth and development. I shared with them my own observations (link here) and we had a great discussion around what could be done on a small and consistent basis (ex: feedback, strengths, bringing it up on 1:1’s) in addition to the regular episodic checkpoints that companies regularly ask their managers to partake in (career conversations, career development weeks, etc) We also talked about how using the 3P model (Pulses, Progress, and Prompts) managers could find ways to incorporate career growth into regular conversations and interactions with their employees.
Pulses - Regular insights, data, or inputs that show employees something they could be doing, exploring, or taking on
Prompts - Questions, ideas, or conversation starters to get employees “unstuck” when they are thinking or reflecting on their careers
Paths - Suggestions of concrete steps or actions and employee can take, if they are focused on a specific goal or outcome, to give them confidence in “what good looks like” to get there
A big takeaway from me from all my years of doing this work is that the more you can turn career into something that is a small habit or practice versus a big monolithic thing, the higher likelihood you can empower your employees to take ownership of their careers. While an employee has to own that, your career is a team sport, and a manager is a critical player in enabling that employee career growth that many employees desire.
People Whose Work You Should Check Out
I wanted to devote a section in my newsletter to individuals who I’ve met whose work I admire, respect and enjoy. These are a combination of executives, leaders, solo practitioners and researchers who I have met through my work, and whose work I would recommend checking out related to the topics of the workplace, talent, and leadership. I’ve included links to their LinkedIn profiles, as well as their podcasts, articles, newsletters, etc.
Lorraine Lee - Lorraine is a fellow solopreneur, a former LinkedIn and Prezi employee, and an executive presence coach and consultant. She recently hit her 1-year mark as a solopreneur which I thought was a relevant read.
Rodney Evans - Rodney is a Partner at The Ready, an Organizational Consulting Firm, and the Co-Host of the Brave New Work Podcast, one of the regular podcasts I listen to. I just interviewed Rodney for The Edge of Work, and she’s got a pragmatic and progressive view on how to create a better world of work
Matthew Daniel - Matthew is a Principal at Guild Education, an Edge of Work Podcast host. His thoughts, research and ideas around career mobility and equity are some of the best in the game.
Grace Zuncic - Grace is the Chief Impact & People Officer at Cotopaxi. I’ve known Grace since she was a MBA student at Harvard over 15 years ago, and is someone I consider a role model, and mentor. She is one of my favorite people leaders, and leaders for that matter, and has done a great job leading in a responsible, impactful and people-first way.
Jen Fisher - Jen is the Head of Human Sustainability at Deloitte, a Best-Selling Author, and an upcoming guest on The Edge of Work Podcast. She is also a fellow substack writer of
David Landman - David is the Former Head of Global Talent Development at Goldman Sachs. He’s an expert in all things talent development, and the intersection of mirroring talent and technology to improve company performance.
Herminia Ibarra - Herminia is a London Business School Professor, and the author of Working Identity, a seminal book in the career development space. If you’re going through a career change, this is a must read book. She is also an upcoming guest on The Edge of Work for 2024.
Christine Tao - Christine is the CEO and Founder of Sounding Board, a Leadership Development software company.
Kim Lear - Kim is a Keynote Speaker and researcher on generational trends and the workplace. She also writes a substack called
That’s all I got. Have a great week!
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