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Career progression: how to do it when you can't do it

Published 17th January 2018 by Investors in People
Career ladder to success

In the latest Investors in People Job Exodus study, 30% of respondents cited a lack of career progression as driving their search for new job opportunities. Offering career progression is therefore a logical step to reduce attrition. But what if you can’t? Smaller organisations will struggle, while those that do have opportunities available may find that timeframes don’t always align with employee expectations. With this in mind, we look at alternative ways organisations can engage and retain staff concerned about career progression.

What do we mean when we talk about career progression?

When we talk about career progression, we most often mean formal promotion. This is an increase in responsibilities alongside a commensurate increase in base salary. The new responsibilities tend to fit into one of three categories, although in many cases they will span two or three. Those categories are:

Exposure to greater technical responsibility

This may involve a greater degree of oversight, autonomy or control over workload, output or direction, access to new tools, technologies and frameworks that are considered more advanced or greater involvement in mission-critical projects. It may involve formal recognition of certain technical skills that will be leveraged to a greater extent as part of the promotion, for example a software developer moving into a role based on their proficiency in a specific programming language.

A powerful method of giving employees exposure to different career paths and skills is by encouraging cross-functional working.

More responsibility for people management

This tends to occur once people reach a certain seniority level, although many people at junior to intermediate levels may find themselves managing one or two people. More responsibility for managing people often comes down to an increase in the number of people you manage or the number of teams you are responsible for. Note that as you get more senior, you may have more people you are responsible for, but actually manage fewer people overall.

More financial responsibility

As people get more senior, they tend to get more responsibility for financial performance, firstly of small units (teams) and then of bigger units (departments). Profit and loss responsibility, known as P&L responsibility, is commonly seen in job descriptions and refers to financial responsibility: the person will be held accountable for the unit’s financial performance.

What else could we mean by career progression?

These formal promotions aren’t always available and even when they are, despite HR’s best attempts to align promotions with employee need, they may not arrive at the right time. Here we look at how else organisations can help people with career progression and, by doing so, reduce attrition.

Increased autonomy and responsibility

This can be done in several ways depending on the circumstances, such as training the line manager to reduce the degree of sign-off needed so that the employee develops greater responsibility and confidence. Alternatively, the line manager could increase the responsibility given when delegating or delegate more complex tasks.

Don’t underestimate the impact coaching and mentoring can have on an individual’s career progression

On the employee side, HR could introduce the employee to job crafting so they can design their jobs to include more complex tasks that inherently come with greater autonomy.

Exposure to different responsibilities, tasks and business issues

It’s easier to give people exposure to different tasks and responsibilities within their own team, for example through greater delegation or by encouraging close working between team members. However, it’s difficult to give them wider experience in the business using this method.

To do this, you could encourage cross-functional working, for example by setting up working groups to look at business-critical issues and collaborate to solve them. This has the added advantage of developing the individual’s interpersonal skills because they’ll need to work closely with people outside their team.

Secondments to different functions or departments

Are you able to provide opportunities for staff to intensively expose themselves to new ways of working, career paths or projects within the organisation? These often come in the form of secondments and may involve a direct swap of two employees looking for new experiences.

Line managers will obviously need to be supportive but this is a great way to bring fresh thinking into teams and also an opportunity to develop the rest of the team, who will need to adapt to the new member’s personality and ways of working.

Development of highly-valued behavioural skills

HR is in a unique position to educate employees on how to make themselves more employable. Even if they can’t offer formal progression at a specific time, they can help prepare employees for when these opportunities arise, for example by helping employees develop the types of behavioural skills that are universally valued at senior levels, such as influencing and persuasion skills. These skills are also likely to make employees more effective in their current roles.

Personal development and skills development

Employees can make themselves more marketable and more likely to be able to take advantage of career progression when it arrives by investing in their own development and skills.

Organisations have two roles to play here. The first is helping individuals uncover the areas where they should focus their efforts. This should take into account their own personal weaknesses or underdeveloped skills, but also insight into what skills and abilities are most valued inside the organisation and in the wider marketplace.

Of course, HR should have solid succession planning strategies in place to improve the chances of rewarding employees that do focus on skills development.

Five action steps for HR to take

  1. Broaden your definition: what does career progression mean in your organisation? Take a look at the ideas above. Are there ways you can encourage career progression through informal routes?
  2. Don’t ignore life goals: for some employees, life goals and career goals are tied up. If you’re not able to help someone directly progress their career, can you help them with self-improvement or extra-curricular activities that could indirectly impact their career?
  3. Coaching and mentoring: don’t underestimate the impact coaching and mentoring can have on an individual’s career progression, specifically helping them see room for further growth in their current position
  4. Make lateral moves more attractive: many employees are open to a lateral move, but are scared it will come with a loss of status or look bad on a CV. Help them solve this conundrum and they’ll be more likely to rise to the challenge
  5. Career audits: think about training line managers to conduct career audits with their team to help individuals recognise weaker areas that may hold them back in their career. You could then offer training courses or help employees make progress through experiential or online learning

Interested in finding out more about why employees are thinking of moving on to new jobs in 2018? Download the Investors in People 2018 Job Exodus report.