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Bev White

Penna Plc

Managing Director of HR Consulting

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How to encourage your teams to embrace the career spiral staircase


When it comes to careers, most of us are familiar with the phrase “climbing the career ladder”. Whilst some individuals might still be focused on getting to the next rung, and pushing themselves upwards, it’s actually quite an old fashioned analogy for today’s workforce. The career spiral staircase better reflects the needs, aspirations and motivations of employees who are keen to progress, but want the flexibility and option to go up and down, and even make horizontal moves, at different stages throughout their career. For employers, setting up optimum conditions which enable employees to do this, is an essential part of employee engagement and retention.

Plan your approach

From an employer’s perspective and accountability stance, there is the need to plan and prepare for a multi- generational workforce ranging from young apprentices and graduates through to older workers. This will require a differentiated approach when it comes to career planning, communicating, motivating, and developing. According to research from Penna published last week, 46% of managers said they didn’t need to adapt their communication style for different generations and yet 39% of employees said it was important to adapt, and that if managers had done so then they would have been more responsive. This is an important employee requirement and a current disconnect we need to pay attention to if organisations are going to raise engagement, retain people and increase productivity.

The research also highlights the need for praise and recognition.  34% of 55-65 year olds wanted their career potential to be recognised and praised and yet managers thought that this was more of a characteristic required by 18-24 year olds.  It also found that 24% of managers are more likely to set challenges for 18-24 year olds with only 17% doing this for 55-65 year olds.

If we are to develop and motivate the wide expanse of generations in today’s workplace and the workplaces of the future we must overcome these misunderstandings, and let go of assumptions about what motivates them and what they want from their career. To close our ears is to deny the talents of employees to flourish.

Don’t make assumptions

So, when will people want to go up and down the career spiral staircase? Is it obvious that your employees expect to be able to do it, when will you know, what does it mean and how can they can tap into the processes and opportunities to make their wants and needs a reality?  Any of these conditions can occur at any time in an employee’s career and the research I referenced above shows us that it is not safe to make broad assumptions about what people want and value based on age or seniority.

 How many exit reports do you find yourself reading that say ‘I left because there were no opportunities to slow down for a bit, go part-time, learn new things, go for the next step ?’ They make sad reading and it leaves you wondering ‘what if?’

Communication and understanding is key

Rather than simply wondering and regretting the loss, the key to understanding what employees need is to have strong communicators in leadership and management positions, who listen to the needs of each individual on their team.  Understanding the type of life they want to lead, and what their priorities and motivations are at all stages of their career is the critical place to start. People show up at work as whole people. They may be juggling childcare, eldercare, or have plans to go study or travel, or even a burning desire and plan to learn new skills and gain more experiences so that when a role becomes available they are ready. Having regular career conversations allows managers to get a view of the bigger picture with each member of their team.

Having gathered this insight and understanding about your employees, it’s what you do with that next which really matters. Having been listened to and heard, employees want to know and believe that their manager will do their very best to support their goals. At the same time they should be supported in understanding how these align with broader business goals and objectives.

Embracing the career spiral staircase: Tools and processes

Using good quality career development tools and processes will be a big help for employees to develop their thinking and capabilities further and to share that with their managers. For employers, wherever possible, regardless of career or life stage, challenges and the opportunity to grow should be made available to their entire teams. This can come in the form of projects and job rotations for example.  This is every bit as important at the start of a career as it is at a much later stage in a career too.

Providing opportunities for senior managers to mentor younger employees is a great way to develop and share learning and in a number of companies now co-mentoring between generations provides valuable insight and learning.

There is no doubt that the career spiral staircase is one that employees of all generations will need to become masterful at navigating throughout their career. They may find themselves choosing when to ascend, hop off for a while and take a steadier track, even descend to take pressure off whilst pursuing other life goals.  If businesses are to retain talent, they will need to be agile and ensure their systems, processes and most importantly their leadership teams are well equipped to motivate and engage employees at every important step on the career spiral staircase.

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Bev White

Managing Director of HR Consulting

Read more from Bev White