Career Management Goes Mission Critical: And It’s All About To Change

One of the most disruptive changes in the world of work is the new way we manage our careers. Only a few decades ago people relied on their employers for a career, and we more or less trusted our boss to help us advance over time. Today this has radically changed, giving birth to a new set of challenges, a new market of tools, and an exciting new marketplace for job seekers.

The history of careers

As I describe in the article Catch the Wave, for many decades careers were a fairly predictable thing. If you started work as an engineer, salesperson, or designer you could expect to progress upward over time, and eventually reach a point where you made a decision between a “professional” or “managerial” track.


This all worked quite well because most companies had a steady pipeline of managerial positions in the hierarchy… so if you wanted to move into management you had plenty of opportunities. As I illustrate in the picture above, the managerial track typically paid more, but you also signed up for more stress, responsibility, and often risk.

The company itself was designed to accommodate this, by building a series of “blocking processes” that forced managers to evaluate your “potential” before you were promoted. In fact, the whole idea of succession management (which is based on evaluating people on their potential and performance) was designed to figure out who crawled up the right side of this pyramid, and who stayed on the left.

There were many artifacts developed around this model, including job titles (associate, manager, senior manager, director, senior director, VP, etc), job levels (many big companies have 60 or more levels), pay grades (we call them bands), and a variety of benefit practices that rewarded people as they ascended the hierarchy. People at higher levels got bigger parking places, larger offices, better benefits, and … well you know what I’m talking about.

HR departments built a lot of infrastructure around this. In many of our leadership development studies we found hundreds of programs that helped companies assess potential, give people developmental assignments and coaching, and deliver varieties of leadership development (ranging from people management to financial and business skills) as they advance in their career.

leadership development

The Political Side of Careers

This whole process created a lot of political and cultural norms in companies. Many people become good at schmoozing senior leaders, getting plum assignments, and doing other things to get promoted. Others take international assignments and ambitiously move from role to role, all in an effort to learn and move upward.

In many companies, this career process was also quite stressful. When I was at IBM in the 1980’s it was quite common for people to worry incessantly about their level and promotion (it was a slow and methodical process). And as one of the CHROs of a well-known consumer products company told me a year or so ago, “our leadership development is a hazing process.” In other words, you had to “fight your way to the top.”

I can’t argue against any of this. When companies are stable and grow in predictable ways, people strive for good jobs and work hard to get ahead. And both the company and the individual will usually benefit.

Matching Individual Need to Company Need

At an individual level, these traditional career models had problems. If you were a scientist or engineer (like me), and you never wanted to move into management, you pretty much had to deal with it. Maybe your company had a good technical career track, but maybe it didn’t.  So we came up with a concept to make this more workable.

career development

As you can see from this chart (this image is about 7 years old), companies started to help individuals figure out what they wanted, and they baked the “career development” process into performance management. Your managers, the sacrosanct owner of your life at work, was supposed to help you manage your career.

This concept became very embedded in companies, so much that many of the companies I see tell me “we don’t encourage people to shop for new jobs unless their manager approves.”

This may have been a good idea in the 1970s and 1980s, but today it holds everyone back. Not only are managers often unaware of other opportunities in a company, but most of them aren’t that good at coaching people in the first place.  (Being a career coach is quite a sophisticated role.) So some of the more sophisticated companies (I remember Telstra did this) actually set up career counselors in HR.  These were often services reserved for high-level people, but at least it started to democratize the process.

Silos in Mobility

In some companies, rapid development and job mobility are valued. But this is a relatively rare occurrence (it’s somewhat common in consumer package goods companies) – because managers are held accountable for business results. If your best person leaves your group to go elsewhere in the company, it may make your job harder – so if the reward system is not designed to facilitate such mobility, you as a manager are going to hold them back. (Often called “hoarding talent.”)

I’ve tested this in many client meetings, and I have heard some pretty funny stories. A large energy company in Asia told me “If you want to change divisions in this company it’s nearly impossible to do it internally. However, if you quit and apply from the outside, it’s pretty easy.”  (I hear this story a lot.)

In the 2019 Deloitte Human Capital trends study, we asked respondents how easy it is to move around in their companies. Shockingly almost 65% told us “it’s easier to find a job outside the company than to find one inside.” Companies have some real issues with internal mobility.

job mobility

And as I’ve studied this over the years, I’ve found its much harder to fix than you think. Not only do reward systems and goals get in the way, but there are cultural biases in different groups. Engineering groups may not like salespeople; people in one country may not respect people in another; tech teams may not respect support teams; and on and on.  I know that even at companies like Amazon there are very different cultures in different product groups – so people just don’t move as much as one may like.

One of the best Chief Talent Officers I ever met (Kathy Gallo, who was at Northshore Long-Island Healthcare at the time), told me a simple solution to this problem. She told the company’s managers that “you don’t own the people working for you, I do.  You’re just here to develop them, so I can move them to the next great job in the company.” That phrase really stuck with me, because even today companies struggle with this issue.

Fast Forward to Today

Given all this baggage, this problem has now become an epidemic. More than 90% of companies believe they have skills gaps; more than 60% of all jobs are changing before our eyes; and younger workers are no longer loyal to their employers. In fact, the single biggest change in work that I can put my finger on is the “untethering” of the relationship between the employer and the employee. If you aren’t managing your own career, you can’t expect your company to do it for you.

All this empowerment and push for faster advancement has created anxiety and change in employees. Edelman research shows that almost 70% of employees are “anxious about their skills” and want real-time development and career growth on the job. My research with LinkedIn now shows that the #1 reason a person leaves a company is because of “lack of growth or learning,” and companies of all shapes and sizes tell me “we have an entire swath of our workforce” that is behind in certain skills.

So this old fashioned, managerial-led, upward focused career path has got to go.

What can take its place?

Well as I tried to write about a few years ago, the career model of the future (for both employers and employees) is a world where people can work, learn, and progress all the time. In other words, we need a way to manage people so they know what they want to do next, the company offers lots of development and support in doing so, and new career opportunities are made available as part of everyday life.

As I like to talk about it, every company is starting to feel more and more like a professional services company. Individuals work on projects, teams, and roles – and then as the company changes and new opportunities open up, they move into something new when the time is right.

I remember a funny meeting I had with GE years ago. At the time the company was very proud of its facilitated talent mobility program and they had a process of regularly moving managers to new jobs every two years. (At Cisco there used to be a rule that any employee can shop for a new job every two years.) The head of leadership development at GE at the time told me “this felt good for a while, but then we realized that people were never accountable for the jobs they had, and we could never tell if they really understood the business they were in.”

This problem of “too much talent mobility” can really create problems. At GE the mantra became “we need leaders to be more electric and less general,” (which I always thought was a cute line), and in other companies, it’s called “running away from the mess you created.” So while we want people to be able to move from role to role as needed, we also need a way to track their growing capabilities, keep tabs on their successes and failures, and hold them accountable as they grow.

In professional services companies this happens automatically – people develop a reputation from each project they do, and over time their performance is evaluated by their peers. In traditional functional hierarchies, where the line manager is often in charge, this creates a need for a new performance management process. So most companies are creating much more transparency, 360-degree feedback practices, and other ways to make sure we know who’s good at what.

Internal Mobility Is Now A Survival Strategy

Many big companies are pushing hard to address this problem, because in many cases it’s a life or death situation. The Chief Talent Officer of Bertelsman recently told me they had more than 10,000 new “digital specialist” roles open up as they looked around the company. When the CEO asked him to go out and “hire those people” he came back and said, “that’s essentially impossible – there aren’t enough people to hire.” So they started building an internal digital skills academy and people are now “volunteering” to take these new roles.

This is happening everywhere I go. One bank I visited told me they had math majors who were working in marketing, and sure enough, they wanted to go into data science and analytics so they have become great candidates for these new jobs. And this is not only good for the company and the individuals, but it’s also saving the bank a lot of money.  The study we are completing with General Assembly shows that in these high demand positions it can be six times cheaper to develop someone from within than to hire someone from the outside!  Lots of ROI for building a better career strategy.

HR software vendors have been waxing eloquent about this for a while. Workday promoted a demo that was supposed to show employees the “most successful next moves” in their companies based on history. Vendors like Cornerstone, Oracle, and SuccessFactors let you put career models into their platforms so people can shop for new roles and determine what skills they need. But despite a lot of these great ideas and tools, until now most have fallen short.

The Workday idea (which other vendors have promoted) has not yet taken off because most companies do not have enough data to show patterns of success. The “career exploration” path-based software works fine if your company is sitting still, but how do you make it work when 60% of the jobs are changing in a single year?  So we need some pretty new ideas.

The ultimate solution is one where we embrace both the cultural and managerial issues, while we also take advantage of new technology. So while every HR vendor will eventually develop something in this area, let me point out a few very exciting things going on.

Unilever’s Work on Purpose, Career, and Mobility with Gloat

Unilever is a fairly amazing company to behold. Not only is the organization very mission-driven, but the leadership understands that building leading consumer products takes creativity, speed, and lots of different types of skills. The company is very aware of social values around sustainability and citizenship, so they wanted to rethink the way people work. The result was several important strategies.

First, in its effort to help people grow, Unilever embarked on a program to help every employee identify his or her purpose. (When you talk with career experts, they always start with this – some form of “card sorting exercise” where every person takes time to figure out where they want to go in life.) At Unilever, the organization has been teaching people how to identify their purpose for several years – and people publish their purpose (their career purpose, personal purpose, family purpose) for others to see.

Second, in its effort to promote skills sharing and horizontal capability development, the company has built a skills assessment platform. Using Degreed as its core (and Workday as the core HRMS), Unilever now lets employees assess their skills and promote and develop them through content, experiences, and peer-based credentials. This is something companies have wanted to do for years: now with products like Degreed, EdCast, and others, it’s possible.

Third, Unilever is working on a data-driven internal marketplace for work. Working with an interesting vendor Gloat (more on them in a later article), the company is deploying what Gloat calls InnerMobility.  This platform lets people post jobs and projects, find jobs and projects, apply for jobs and projects, and it recommends jobs and projects based on your skills. What’s exciting about the Gloat platform is that it uses external job data to make these recommendations – so while Unilever may have a consumer food marketing job open in a given city, Gloat will tell you the skills other consumer marketing careers need, making it even more relevant when you search for a job.  (Unilever also uses Pymetrics to assess capabilities, which helps the algorithms work in an unbiased way.)

This is only the first article I’m writing on this topic – in the next one I’m going to dig into Gloat, PhenomPeople, Fuel 50, Bridge, and some of the other next generation career tools coming to market. Let me just conclude with an important point: in this new world of “talent experiences,” perhaps the most important of all is working on things that advance your personal career. Now, like never before, we are going to be able to make this possible in companies of all sizes, thanks to new technology and new ideas forged by the disruptive new world of work.

Stay tuned for the next article on this topic, and I’ll dig into these new tools in more detail.