7 Tips for Career-Pathing

When it comes to executive succession planning, most of the attention is paid to the graying of the executive suite. But with the economy gradually improving to the point where worry of a double-dip recession has been placed in the rearview mirror, another dynamic is unfolding in business organizations.

Many executives and other professionals are getting restless because in many cases they have been stuck in the same job, they’ve assumed additional duties and tasks because their companies are trying to do more with roughly the same staffing level, and they are getting somewhat anxious for a change – a career change.

“For the most part, people have not gotten raises or any advancement in their careers,” said Steve Landry, director of sales and marketing for The Employer Group. “They’ve had their head down and pretty much done what was necessary to get through the recession.

“Now that things are starting to turn around and companies are hiring again, employers should be concerned about their really good employees. They might start looking for other opportunities and move on, and employers will not see it coming.”

This is where proactive career-pathing can prevent gradual workforce erosion. So before you engage in skill-building with the help of a local executive education program, consider these succession-planning tips.

1. Layer it on

Succession planning is trickier not just because it goes beyond the executive suite, but also because baby boomers have reasons to delay retirement. With the stock market reaching new heights, they might now be making up for the 2008-09 whacking of retirement savings, but for a generation that defined the term workaholic, there is a psychological impediment to retirement.

These factors are making organization-wide succession planning an extensive task. Kim Hollman, a business instructor at Madison College, said organizations could simplify the task by focusing on key leadership positions – an approach that frames the task and makes it manageable. But they also should go through the first two or three layers of the organization, identify key skill sets, and cross-train for them. This makes additional layering possible should the company go that route.

“If you have skill sets within your organization that are fairly scarce, then the urgency to complete this at a very in-depth level would be more important,” Hollman said. “It’s company-dependent and situation-dependent.”

2. Set measurable outcomes

Part of keeping succession planning manageable is predetermining the outcomes and making sure that those outcomes are measurable. Say an organization has identified its top six or 10 crucial skill sets, or the unique skill sets for every key process; in that case, Hollman said management must make sure it has enough people to provide those skills. That way, if employees leave, their knowledge and expertise won’t exit with them.

3. Include all generations

Navigating the different needs of a multigenerational workforce has to be part of the calculus. There are basically three generations working for business organizations: baby boomers (1946-64); Generation X (1965-1983); and Generation Y, or the “Millennials” (1984-2002). 

According to Amy Gannon, assistant professor of management for Edgewood College, Generations X and Y want to move up and expand and take on new professional opportunities, but there is a squeeze on them because baby boomers are working longer as they age.

Gannon said organizations have to deal with this “compression” by helping boomers make the transition to retirement or semi-retirement by defining a transitional role. She noted boomers are reluctant to retire for more than financial reasons. “Even if I’m financially ready to retire, maybe psychologically and emotionally I’m not ready for that career transition,” she said.

Gannon, a Gen X-er, said her generation feels sandwiched between the boomers, who don’t want to retire, and the Millennials, who don’t want to wait. For her, the lack of a plan to address this is telling on two fronts. “For me, it’s not just a red flag that companies haven’t managed career transitions,” Gannon said, “but also a red flag that maybe they are overvaluing past skills and institutional history over innovation and creativity that perhaps younger generations will bring as they move through the organization.”

Actively managing these respective positions is a real balancing act. “If you have a very young population of employees, on average they are going to hold 11 jobs between the ages of 18 and 44, based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” Hollman noted. “So you’ve got to look at how comfortable you feel with your employee base and what your turnover has been in the past. Every company is going to be a little different.”

Be prepared for some chutzpah among the very young, some of whom expect to come in with a title, not work their way up, according to Landry. Perhaps internships are one way to inject a dose of reality before graduation, but another way to gently yank their chain is to communicate the career paths and mentoring opportunities that are available to them.

Above all, actively manage their career transitions by asking them where they see themselves in five years and figuring out how to get them there. “Some employees really are happy working 8 to 5 and performing whatever task they are doing, but others want to grow,” Landry stated. “Figure out what they want to grow toward and how to help them.”



4. Advance communications 

Communication is not only important once the succession strategy is set, but beforehand as well. When companies ponder long-delayed succession planning, they should map out how they intend to communicate it to employees, because anything new can generate fear and unfounded rumors. If a succession strategy is presented as something that’s not a downsizing exercise but an effort to plan for the future and offer a sense of organizational purpose, upper management can reassure people they are part of the organization’s plans.

5. Time the project

Businesses have varying periods of intensity, and even if you can make it more manageable, organization-wide succession planning “is not something that you want to jump into right in the middle of whatever your busy season might be,” Hollman said. “Most businesses have ebbs and flows in their business cycle, and if they have an opportunity to execute this process right in the middle of a high-stress period in their organization, you wouldn’t want this kind of project on top of it.”

6. Go online

In addition to the online degree programs being developed for the state university system, individual colleges and universities have their own online options that can accelerate the pace of skill development and offer more scheduling flexibility.

“Not all the programs, at this point, have moved to an online environment, but many of them are moving there,” Hollman said. “I think it provides employers and employees with a certain amount of flexibility to pick up those skill sets quite quickly.”

7. Apply new skills

The biggest mistake companies make with employee development is having their workers go back to school to gain skills without ensuring that those skills will translate on the job. Some organizations actually invest in skills development with incentives like tuition reimbursement, but then fail to leverage it.

“I’ve seen a lot of companies do tuition reimbursement, and say we want you to expand your skills and your credentials, and then do no internal career development with those people,” Gannon said. “It’s incredibly frustrating for those people, and then they do leave, and the company has lost an opportunity to tap into the employees it invested in.”

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