I’m coming up on the anniversary of my first international business trip back when I was a young(ish) professional. I was excited to be traveling to Paris with so many famous spots to visit: the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysées.
As you can imagine, these landmarks are captured in the photo albums; but when I think back upon that trip, it’s what happened between the snapshots that makes up the most powerful and meaningful memories.
Literally wearing out a pair of shoes because I didn’t want to take the Metro and miss anything between stops. Learning appropriate French toasts during dinner at my host’s home. Connecting with an elderly shop owner who wrapped my bar of lavender soap so beautifully that I refused to open it for years. Feeling so accomplished after navigating from the office to the hotel, communicating exclusively “en francais.”
This old travel memory sparked an interesting thought and possible parallel to career development: When it comes to careers, have you ever noticed that most of us anticipate the landmarks, but most fondly remember what we experienced in between?
So frequently, when planning and conversing about careers and development, we tend to focus on the landmarks — those destinations to be captured in snapshots: promotions, positions and moves. But, when we look back, our careers are much richer and more complete than that.
In fact, careers encompass the whole trip, with lots more time and interest between the milestones. It’s in between where relationships are forged, growth and development flourish and memories are made. We live and grow along the way — between the landmarks.
Many employees are beginning to embrace this idea. The past 20 months have changed many of us. Some have experienced profound COVID epiphanies that have sparked significant lifestyle shifts. Others have discovered new interests or a renewed desire to be of service. Others recognize the value of relationships and are doubling down on connection. Many are feeding their souls and their need for greater harmony between work and home. And the news is filled with evidence of a dramatic increase in the demands of employees to want greater control and choice over where, when and how they work.
More and more employees are recognizing that there’s a lot of life and development to be enjoyed between the old career landmark of promotions.
And that’s good news for leaders who know all too well the limitations of position-based development. Too few promotions for everyone who wants to develop has been a source of workplace frustration and dissatisfaction for some time. It’s also a reason many managers shy away from career conversations. A position-based approach to development is simply incapable of generating the sustainable growth that organizations need and employees truly want.
So, the time is right to shift our focus from the high-profile career destinations and milestones — the landmarks — to the experience of growth, meaning and satisfaction that’s available anytime to employees along the way. And leaders can begin to inspire this shift with four simple yet profound questions.
1. What does “career” mean to you?
For the past 10 years, I’ve been asking this question of nearly everyone I meet. And the answers consistently inspire me. People typically pause. And, as they reflect, their demeanor softening, they share that while an important part of “career” is being able to provide for themselves and their families, it’s also about sharing their talents, being part of something bigger than themselves, making a difference, honing their skills and taking on challenges that allow for a satisfying stretch.
Leaders who pose this question will not only learn about their employees, they’ll also forge a deeper relationship.
2. What feelings would you like to experience more during your daily work?
Given labor shortages, competition and the shift of power in the employment relationship from the organization to the worker, businesses everywhere are grappling with how to elevate the employee experience.
What it boils down to is a better understanding what people want more of during their experience of work. Is it a greater sense of purpose? Meaningful connections with other? Fewer roadblocks and obstacles to getting the work done? Greater challenge and variety? More flexibility?
Organizational efforts are welcome, but individuals will have their own unique set of priorities that leaders can only respond to if they understand them. And that happens through conversation.
3. How would you like to grow and develop now?
Let’s face it. Promotions and other moves aren’t in the direct control of most leaders and employees. But what falls squarely within their sphere of influence is growth. Leaders can generally say “yes” to development opportunities (and why wouldn’t they, as it’s to their benefit.)
Reskilling and upskilling are becoming increasingly important to future-proofing careers. Likewise, opportunities to attend workshops, participate in job shadowing, engage in targeted on-the-job development experiences, or receive mentoring and coaching are not just welcome — they are necessary.
4. When you look back on this time of your career, what do you hope you’ll have accomplished?
Just as with my experiences in Paris, looking back can frequently illuminate the authentic high points of a trip — experiences and achievements that are scattered among and between the photo-op landmarks. Leaders can help employees adopt this retrospective perspective by throwing them into the future and inviting them to look back.
The output of this conversation offers a unique window into their hopes, dreams and aspirations — and can help develop plans toward that desired tomorrow today.
The best, most memorable parts of a vacation happen between the landmark destinations. And the best, most memorable parts of a career happen between the periodic moves among positions, departments and levels. When we all come to understand this, voila! Career development will immediately be more accessible, satisfying and successful. N’est-ce pas?
Julie Winkle Giulioni is a champion of growth and development in the workplace, helping leaders and organizations optimize the potential of their people. Named one of Inc. Magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, she’s the co-author of the international bestseller, “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want.” Learn more about her work at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.
Are you ready to help those around you enjoy better, nimbler, and more effective development? Download my “VUCA Career Development for a VUCA World: A Leadership Playbook for Career Development that’s Fast, Frequent and Flexible” for an updated framework and 20 questions to drive more dynamic and effective growth.