how HR can empower managers to support career development.

HR leaders we know are commonly asking for help with making their managers more effective.

In corporate environments, which operate at a dizzying pace to get the work done, the responsibilities of managing can often take a lower priority. Yet, when it comes to employee engagement, the manager is often the most impactful factor in the satisfaction of their direct report. According to Gallup, in the US, managers can account for up to 70% of the variance in an employee’s engagement level. A 2019 study from the Work Institute found that 11% of employees quit due to manager behavior. As the employment market has shifted the power to the employee, who now has many options available, the role of the manager has become more critical.

HR leaders we talk to, however, seem stumped as to how to help managers become better at developing their people. We often hear:

“We do leadership development but managers still don’t seem to know how to help their people.”

 “We’re promoting our managers without much training.”

“Our managers want to do the right thing but they’re not getting HOW to do that.” estimates the global training industry to be valued at $366 billion in annual spend in 2018, with various sources, like Bersin Academy, citing $14 billion spent on leadership development alone. Yet, a McKinsey article shows that much of this investment has not been effective in creating better leaders and managers.

Related article: how HR can identify and remove unintended barriers to talent mobility.

What is getting the attention of the most progressive organizations, however, is the effectiveness of career development as a subset of training and development. Employers who offer opportunities for employees to pursue new roles in the organization or contribute to project teams and other internal gigs can greatly help their companies improve employee engagement, according to Glassdoor.  When an organization opens the doors wide to employees to encourage them to contribute to their organization in new ways, employees’ hunger for development should be satisfied, right?

Unfortunately, companies tell us that’s not the case.

why career development programs sometimes fail

Most companies who offer career development opportunities to employees miss a critical component: engaging managers in the process. Managers can easily support or block the career development of an employee, often with the best of intentions. Here are a few roadblocks we see that managers can, often unwittingly, create.

1. Managers hoard talent instead of share talent. This is the most common reason we hear about why career development or career pathing programs fail. Employees are given access and visibility into exciting new opportunities within the organization, only to be told that the manager can’t give them up ‘right now.’ When you dig into the root cause of this, it isn’t that the manager doesn’t want what’s best for the employee. It’s often that the way the manager is managed or compensated doesn’t leave room for talent growth. One employee, Jaelyn, said in her exit interview that she had asked to move to a new innovation group about a year before her resignation. The group liked her work and wanted her to move over but when she followed the company protocol by asking for the manager’s permission, she was told, ’no.’ In Jaelyn’s case, she found a similar opportunity outside the company and resigned in order to take it.

2. Managers avoid career conversations. We hear quite often from HR leaders that their managers don’t know how to have career conversations. The managers we speak to say the same and share their fears about having these conversations. ‘What if they ask for a promotion? I don’t have a new job to give them’ is the most common fear. As a result, managers often avoid these conversations with employees and don’t actively invite them. Those who are pursued by an employee for a career conversation find themselves unprepared and unconfident to have this dialogue.

3. Managers don’t encourage time for learning. We’re in a time when skills have shorter half-life than ever, according to the World Economic Forum; yet most organizations continue to focus managers on productivity metrics outside development and directly related to short-term organizational performance. Thus, learning tools may become available but remain underutilized by employees. Labor laws in many countries prevent workers from learning in their off hours without compensation and most organizations are unprepared to pay employees to learn.

Related content: the positive impact of career development on change management.

4 ways to eliminate career development barriers

There is good news. By recognizing these barriers, HR leaders can address these challenges.

1. Reconsider how you define ‘team performance’ at your company to include not only short-term team productivity, but also longer-term development of talent. Consider how your managers are measured and compensated. Is there room for part of their compensation to be based on developing employees? Many organizations already hold managers accountable for employee engagement survey results and give bonuses to managers with above-average results.

A few progressive organizations are compensating managers based on their ability to develop people. Consider making development metrics part of the team performance guidelines at your company. When communicated from the top and included in regular manager performance reviews, people-development metrics find time to be prioritized. Coaching managers in either individual coaching or group coaching can help them manage the paradox of meeting both the business objectives and the people objectives, which can often be a contradictory process.

2. Empower managers with simple tools to help them have career conversations. A video, a worksheet or a simple checklist can help managers feel more confident in their ability to have career conversations. One engineering manager we spoke with was elated to have a checklist in front of him during career conversations; it helped him anticipate the emotion that sometimes surfaces during these conversations and to welcome the transparent dialogue he had always avoided.

Companies are also orienting employees to a ‘career lattice’ approach, a term coined by career thought leader Bev Kaye. When employees consider their careers to be a lattice, rather than a ladder, they’re able to expand their view of their next opportunity  to include multi-directional movement, rather than thinking of their next move as needing to be a notch up. This cultural approach to careers will help make the manager’s job  easier. If an employee comes to the career conversation with their mind set on a single opportunity, the discussion with the manager can be difficult, as the manager’s power to influence all factors that go into a single opportunity is limited. When an employee approaches such a discussion with an open mindset and sees multiple possibilities for future contributions, a manager has many ways to assist and pave the way.

3. Instead of dedicating time to learning, which is unrealistic in most environments, consider adjusting your learning to deliver it within the flow of work. Stretch assignments and internal gigs can create opportunities for employee development that don’t result in net new time. Time is taken from the employee’s regular job function to contribute for a period to a project team. The project will often enable the employee to interact across departments or teams and make it easier to get work done in the future by building internal networks. The new skills learned can often be shared with the primary team.

Related content: dedicated project teams: how internal gigs close the skills gap.

4. Another technique is to provide preparation for employees to hold career conversations with managers, a simple yet effective practice to improve employee engagement. Worksheets and checklists to prepare the manager and employee for those conversations can be provided to both parties for a quick review just before the discussion. Social learning or democratizing learning to increase peer-to-peer learning can also help create transparency around these conversations by helping employees or managers  share their best discussion items and questions. These just-in-time learning approaches can ensure you’re delivering content that can be utilized in your busy organization.

Career development is an essential offering for any company wishing to become or remain an employer of choice. Many organizations offer development opportunities to their employees through LMS access or career pathing tools, but find that this only leads to increased frustration among employees who can’t pursue opportunities because their managers won’t allow it. Engaging managers is crucial to the success of any career development program. Informing them, however, is not one in the same. HR must empower managers, compensating them for their efforts and ensuring that managers are rewarded for developing employees who move on in the company.

HR can help these managers have better and more frequent career conversations with employees by giving them tools to improve their competence and confidence. Additionally, HR would benefit from rethinking learning and development formats, and delivering learning within the context of work whenever possible.

Not all of these are simple tasks and not all can be prioritized on a busy HR calendar; however, effort toward some of these will positively impact the company’s ability to retain talent, develop employees, keep them interested and engaged, and attract more with the same passions and energy. This can give your organization the competitive advantage it needs to reach even the most ambitious business objectives.

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jeanne schad.

talent solutions and strategy practice leader

26 February 2020

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