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Careers in crisis: Developing employees despite the chaos

The pandemic shouldn't stall career development. Here's how managers and leaders can help their teams push on.

6 min read


Careers in crisis:  Developing employees despite the chaos

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We’ve all seen the memes and jokes online: “If 2020 was a pinata, it would be a hornet’s nest.” “If 2020 was a slide, it would be an oversized cheese grater.” “If 2020 was a drink, it would be colonoscopy prep.”

Add to that, “If 2020 was a career, it would look a gaping hole to many employees.”

The past several months have ushered in extraordinary workplace changes. A mass exodus from offices to doing business from home. Heightened safety precautions and concerns. Concurrent child care and educational responsibilities added to already overflowing workdays. Furloughs and layoffs for some, and greater workloads and stress for others. Dramatically shifting priorities. Projects canceled or delayed, and previously unconceived notions becoming a primary focus.

No wonder careers and development have been put on the backburner for – and by – so many of us. But even today’s chaos can’t extinguish the deep human yearning to learn, grow and advance. So, organizations and leaders must find a way to continue to prioritize development despite it all.

But, let’s be honest. Old models and frameworks aren’t capable of addressing current business conditions or the needs (and expectations) of employees today. An updated mindset is required — one that is grounded in GRACE, or growth, relationship, agility, creativity and equity. GRACE offers a way to think about and remember the elements essential to career development now.


As you know, organizational structures remain in flux as leaders struggle to bring stability to an uncertain workplace. Positions are on hold and promotions are few and far between. So, if these are the only yardsticks for success, no wonder employees feel stunted. Now, more than ever, leaders need to help people redefine career and identify internal versus external measures based upon growth rather than promotions and positions.

The questions are no longer “What do you want to be?” or “Where do you see yourself in five years?” both of which generate frustration and disengagement when the organization can’t deliver on what’s requested. Instead the conversation needs to focus on:

  • How are you growing right now? How can you magnify and apply these experiences?
  • What do you yearn to learn?
  • How do you want to show up and contribute during this time?
  • What kind of work do you want to be doing? What kinds of problems do you want to find solutions to?

The beauty of these sorts of growth-focused conversations is that leaders can nearly always find a way to say “yes.” Especially now, given the challenges facing organizations, there are countless opportunities for people to stretch, explore and develop right where they are. No new position or promotion required.


Meaningful career development has never been an activity or a task to be checked off, but instead has been an ongoing relationship. Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of a once-a-year development session (and who among us has not?) knows that the emptiness of such an administrative gesture can sometimes do more harm than good. People are looking for a development relationship with their managers and mentors.

Relationships are even more vital today. Given the disconnection within a largely distributed workforce, the isolation that many face and loneliness associated with social distancing, connection takes on greater significance.

Leaders can elevate the quality of career development and offer opportunities for connection through regular, ongoing career conversations. Even from a distance, there are countless opportunities to enrich a conversation with questions that help people reflect on the nature of their work and careers:

  • What’s most interesting about the work you’re doing now?
  • What do you want to do more of? Less of?
  • What do you wish you had more time for?

Simple questions like these open the door to development dialogue. But they do more than simply spark insights within the employee; they also demonstrate your ongoing (versus once-a-year) commitment, build trust and strengthen relationships.


A more graceful approach to development is a more agile one. If the past several months have taught us nothing else, it’s that everything can change — and fast. Organizations and individuals who’ve survived (and in some cases thrived) are those that had the resources to pivot swiftly. And the resource that most powerfully enables this is human agility.

So, helping others develop the capacity to be flexible, nimble and responsive to an ever-changing environment is key. But our approach to career development must be agile, too. One-year, six-month, even quarterly individual development plans are too long term to be relevant today. As a result, effective leaders focus on a narrower time horizon and more discrete milestones, which are not only more realistic but also more energizing for employees.


Career development today must leverage all the creativity that leaders and employees have at their disposal. With fewer live classes, workshops and conferences available, we can’t fall back on default development activities. But the range of possibilities is only limited by our imagination.

Consider how employees might mine current roles for greater value. Or find opportunities to expand someone’s visibility and/or network. Identify coaching and mentoring opportunities within the organization. Coach employees to use outside of work volunteer activities intentionally to learn, grow and develop. Career development in the COVID era isn’t dead; but we do need to breathe new life into it with a healthy dose of fresh thinking and originality.


Genuine, sustainable development is grounded in equity. We need look no further than the first few lines of our news feeds to see the devastating effects of racism and discrimination. Leaders must take an honest look at who’s getting developed and who’s not. We all have to ask ourselves about just how inclusive (or exclusive) our systems and processes are. And we have to find better ways to identify and address the conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace and beyond.

There’s no argument that 2020 has been an extraordinary year. And yet the crises facing organizations don’t have to limit career development; they might actually accelerate it. Leaders who approach this time and their people’s growth with GRACE can create their own new and constructive “if 2020 was a career” memes.


Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning.  Named one of Inc. Magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, Giulioni is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want,” You can learn more about her speaking, training and blog at

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