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Defining career paths for your employees — and why they matter.

It’s a common job interview question, and for good reason: “Is there room for growth?” This question is often asked by the kinds of employees you want on your team — the ones who are not only thinking “job,” but also “career.” To keep these career-focused employees engaged, help them envision their future — and how they’ll get there — by mapping out a career path together.

Staff progressing along a career development path generally have higher morale, are more productive, and more readily take on new challenges. They tend to look for ways to learn and grow, and often share that knowledge and enthusiasm with other team members. Furthermore, defining potential career paths can help your organization in its inclusion efforts as people from diverse backgrounds, including women and minorities, see a path for future growth.

Although professionals from every generation value growth, it’s particularly true for Generation Z and millennials, who currently make up the largest share of the workforce. A recent Gallup report explains that Millennials aren’t pursuing job satisfaction. They’re pursuing development. They don’t want bosses, they want coaches.

Take a page from a coach’s playbook and help create a career path game plan for your employees. Strong plans capitalize on the talents and strengths of each team member, build up weak areas, offer direction and set clear milestones on the path to success. Because no two professionals are the same, it’s smart to find the sweet spot where your organization’s needs align with their personal career visions and help them to establish steps to achieve that goal.

The keys to success lie in understanding your business’s needs and facilitating open, ongoing communication. Here’s how to get started:

  1. Assess the current strategic goals of the organization, your short-term and long-term needs, the resources you have today and where gaps appear. Know what skills or positions you need to accomplish company goals, as they’re stated today.

  2. Survey your employee’s area(s) of interest by inviting them to complete a formal or informal self-assessment. This can help them evaluate their current skills, experiences, interests and potential obstacles to reaching their two-year, five-year and 10-year career goals. Encourage them to think about dream roles, upcoming projects that might excite them and what support they might need en-route to their next steps.

  3. Listen to your employee. Set a meeting with your employee specifically to gather essential insights into their interests and vision of their future. Listen carefully; not everyone wants to scale the leadership ladder. Some employees prefer horizontal career paths leading to non-supervisory roles. Instead of management, they may have goals like improving specific skills, moving into areas that intrigue them or trying out different responsibilities.

  4. Align your company’s current and future needs with your employee’s interests, skills and experience. Carefully consider what your meeting revealed about your employee’s goals and vision. And keep an open mind as you assess their suitability for a role, being careful to steer clear of stereotyping if their goals don’t align with the traditional path.

  5. Draft a plan as a discussion starting point. Remember that on-the-job experience is one of the best ways to both train staff and assess their readiness for a role. Make sure the plan includes significant opportunities for experiential learning, networking, coaching and mentoring, as well as more formal training.

  6. Collaborate with your employee in a second meeting to define their personalized career plan. Stay open to suggestions, be honest and thorough about their current preparation for their desired role and be specific about the additional steps, resources and training they may need.

  7. Document the plan in writing, with copies for you and the employee, and include clear milestones to improve accountability and help you both evaluate their progress and prepare for the next steps. Be careful to note that a plan is not a promise. Their actions won’t guarantee a promotion, and countless factors — many of which are external and beyond your control — can influence how long it takes for goals to be accomplished, and staffing needs evolve from season to season.

  8. Check in with your employee quarterly to track their progress and make any needed adjustments. Encourage them to talk with you between meetings to discuss unexpected obstacles or opportunities that may arise along the path. Support them as they progress — but don’t do the work for them. Advancement along the career path remains their responsibility.

When you encourage employees towards their long-term goals, you bolster their commitment to your organization, boost morale and offer them exposure to their full potential. As you paint a picture of a career path for your employees, they can feel more equipped and empowered to succeed.

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