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What career development can learn from Netflix

Career development needs a refresh. The subscription-based business model can be an inspiration that drives growth and employee engagement.

6 min read


What career development can learn from Netflix

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I was recently preparing to do career development training for a technology company.

My usual process involves finding ways to set key concepts in the client’s world and leveraging existing mental models as foundations upon which to build. I reflected upon their software-as-a-service licensing and delivery model, remembering a time when I actually purchased a box of instructions and discs and installed computer programs. Now, I enjoy the ease of a monthly subscription to ever-updating software.

And that’s when it struck me: Career development needs a similar strategy and branding update. For too long, managers have thought of career development as that “box” — an annual one-and-done activity, or “installation,” that once rebooted would carry people on for a year (or longer.) But that time has passed as we’ve now become a subscription society.

  • In 2019, Americans spent an average of $640 on digital subscriptions.
  • Spending on new subscriptions more than tripled during the early days of the pandemic.
  • According to a trade association, in just two years, “75% of organizations selling D2C [direct to consumer] will offer subscription services.”

Remember buying or renting videos? Now we subscribe to Netflix. Or going shopping for clothes a couple of times each year? Now many people receive a monthly Stitch Fix box or Nordstom Trunk. Instead of buying value-pack items from big-box retailers and parsing them out over several months or the year, we now “subscribe and save.” Remember when massages were one-off treats? Now they’re membership-based, with monthly debits from our bank accounts.

A subscription-based approach to spreading purchases and commitments over time works well for retailers. It also offers a fresh take on today’s tired and ineffective approach to career development. The annual cadence of planning and evaluation conversations has not kept pace with employee expectations for some time. And the events of last year demonstrate that the old career setup can’t keep pace with today’s volatile and changeable workplace.

Today, we have an opportunity to rethink career development in most organizations. To rebrand this critical employee activity as distributed rather than discrete events. To help leaders and employees alike make development conversation ever-present rather than episodic — persistent rather than periodic.

When we do, tremendous benefits follow, because incremental, ongoing development and the conversations that drive it encourage:

  • Action: Bite-size conversations and plans are more digestible and able to implement.
  • Agility: Today, success relies upon the ability respond more nimbly to changing conditions, challenges and interests.
  • Connection: Ongoing dialogue about development offers another critical employee-centered touch point – something that’s become increasingly important over the past year of isolation.
  • Trust: Employees see right through leaders who rotely execute a prescribed corporate process, and they trust people who demonstrate an authentic commitment to their growth.
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So, how can leaders leave behind this old model and adopt a more subscription-based approach to career development? Consider these five options, which can be used individually or in combination:

1. Break it up

Your corporate career development documents and process are a great starting point. They likely include a rich array of questions and activities to engage in and with. But why do it all at once? Consider the value of distributing the process over time.

Perhaps you begin with questions about strengths and improvement opportunities. Talk about them. Allow time for the employee to really think about their answers. Then, the next month, you might move on to the next part of your form. Taking your time allows for a richer and more meaningful dialogue to emerge. (Note: To meet organizational deadlines, though, this might mean beginning the process well in advance to remain compliant.)

2. Seize the moment

Nearly every interaction you have with an employee is a powerful opportunity to address development. When someone is engaged, you can ask a question to unlock important information about likes, motivations and values. Conversely, when you encounter disengagement, that’s the ideal time to probe about interests, stressors, wants and needs.

When someone performs well, that’s a chance to consider strengths and how else they might be leveraged. When people struggle, you can explore the skills or support required to grow and attain greater success in the future. The key, as a leader, is to remain highly sensitive to the cues around you — and to be prepared with a question that moves the conversation toward development.

3. Carve out a “career corner”

Send a clear message about the importance of career development by making it a standing agenda item during every team meeting. Encourage employees to share what they’ve learned and how else they want to grow. Transparently discuss business changes, the implications for future skill needs and development opportunities that are available today.

4. Add some wonder to 1:1s

Apply the “career corner” idea to your one-on-one conversations. If you’re like many leaders, these conversations begin and end with performance. The focus is primarily on the numbers, what’s been accomplished and what remains undone. Imagine the power of beginning these conversations differently – in a wondering way with a question like, “What have you learned?” or “How have you grown over the past X weeks?’

Shifting the lens during these meetings establishes a subscription-like cadence and frames the discussion of performance in a new and perhaps insightful light.

5. Democratize development

Career development doesn’t have to be an exclusive relationship between employee and leader. Increasingly, organizations are recognizing the value of encouraging a broader network of support for growth. Consider forming development duos — pairs of employees who can support and coach each other.

Providing even a few intentional questions or a simple conversational framework allows even front-line employees to step up to this role in a meaningful way, gaining valuable learning and growth as they receive and give peer support.

Organizations worldwide are gravitating toward subscription-based business models because of the value they drive. Leaders may want to find ways to make career development fit that model as well – distributing it over time, iterating and always keeping growth front of mind.

The benefits associated with doing so — engagement, satisfaction, retention — meet a compelling business need and hit the bottom line, as well.


Looking for additional leadership ideas and resources? Because supporting employee engagement and performance this year demands a clear-eyed look at last year, download our complimentary e-toolkit, Hot Mess? Dumpster Fire? Train Wreck? You Still Have to Conduct Year-End Reviews. In it, you’ll find a novel way to get employees to prepare, a roadmap to a productive conversation, the must-ask questions, pitfalls, tips for handling it remotely, and even strategies for addressing the dreaded money question.

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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