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What does a career look like in today’s world?

What should managers do to develop employees when the traditional career path no longer exists?

4 min read




You remember the Hans Christian Andersen tale about the vain emperor who is duped into wearing “specially woven” clothes that are actually nonexistent?

While he parades around, his subjects remain silent, not daring to address the situation for fear of seeming stupid or less sophisticated than others — until a child says what’s on everyone else’s mind: “The emperor has no clothes!”

Well, that’s the experience of many employees today, working for organizations that talk a good game about career development and progression but consistently fail to deliver. Which makes me wonder, is it time for the subjects of today’s corporate empires to step forward and bravely declare that the emperor has no clothes and that many organizations no longer offer careers? Is it possible that the whole notion of “careers” as we used to know them is dead?

One definition of “career” is “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.” Most would argue that tenure and progress are increasingly absent from the experience of many employees. And it makes sense.

Today’s business landscape is wildly different than that of the past. Organizations are flatter. Middle levels of management have been pruned. Baby boomers are working longer and occupying more senior roles. A huge portion of the workforce considers itself “contingent” in the gig economy. Career paths are becoming fluid in an effort to adjust to fast-changing conditions more agilely. Movement can be expensive. And artificial intelligence puts the future of many roles in question. All of this means that the old pictures and expectations of career development and progression — that predictable climb up the corporate ladder — is no longer valid.

Organizations that transparently lean into this reality may find themselves at an advantage over those who continue to parade around, touting the promise of the traditional career and its development. And yet, what’s the alternative value proposition, particularly in a competitive talent market?

In environments where developing careers is no longer as readily accessible or possible, the key is to determine what else can be developed instead. What matters most to employees? What will serve them today and into the future? Help people develop such things as:

  • Capabilities. Offer the opportunity to gain new skills, competencies, knowledge and the ability to contribute at greater levels.
  • Confidence. Create an environment rich in feedback, appreciation and affirmations – one that helps people deepen their sense of self-assurance and self-esteem.
  • Relationships. Given today’s loneliness epidemic, cultivating connections among team members enriches life at work and beyond. And the resulting network support employees’ current performance and future possibilities.
  • Visibility. Identify opportunities to spotlight strengths, allow others to garner attention and let them shine.
  • Agility. Help employees to develop resilience and “future proof” themselves by generating and pursuing a range of developmental options.
  • Variety. You can elevate interest and engagement at work by identifying new and appetizing challenges that others can’t wait to sink their teeth into.
  • Joy. Find ways to enhance the level of satisfaction and happiness within each employee’s current role.

It’s time to stop gaslighting employees with the promise of careers where they may not exist. It’s not fair, and it’s not necessary. Especially when leaders have so many powerful and meaningful alternatives that they can develop and leverage.


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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