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Creativity in Career Management?

Are Companies Creative in How They Manage Careers? Are You?

Written with Dr Maria Stafylarakis (Manchester Business School), Sandra Evans and Michael Moran (of Fairplace Ltd).

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Prior to the recession it could be argued that“…people spent more time researching their next holiday than they did planning their careers”.[1] However, with the current state of the economy and the repeated rounds of redundancies, Career Management is fast becoming one of the hottest topics at work. Many organisations run staff engagement surveys, with a common finding being that employees want career opportunities and most importantly the opportunity to develop. Indeed, staff exit interviews regularly demonstrate that people leave organisations because they seek a chance to develop.

A cursory glance at the HR textbooks, a wander through the halls of any HR conference or spending time talking with people at work quickly reveals a fundamental truth… people care a lot about their careers and their employment pathways. However, despite the popularity and importance of career management (CM) from the academic or grass-roots perspective – most organisations don’t appear to have in place the strategy, process or procedures to actively supervise the ongoing management of people’s careers. Similarly, individuals rarely set aside the time, space and structure to examine their career trajectories.

Time for a little soul-searching… Does your organisation take Career Management seriously and invest appropriately? Are you being creative in how careers are approached and managed? Is your organisation scared that investment in CM will result in employees leaving?

By way of example take this brief case study from Deloitte, a leading accountancy firm..

Deloitte have a strong desire to manage their talent. They have found that CM helps them retain staff particularly post-qualification. Over the past 5 years, they have provided education on career paths inside and outside of Deloitte so their employees can make reasoned decisions on their future careers. This honesty and transparency strengthens the bond of trust between employer and employee which last long in their career lives. Further, staff can now make a far more reasoned decision to stay (or leave, should they wish to).

From an economic point of view, this programme saved Deloitte over £640,000 in year one through reduced recruitment. Whilst the market place and conditions have changed over the past 5 years, Deloitte have continued to invest in CM and feel confident they are in a great place to retain their top graduates when the market picks up in 2010 and can confidently call themselves an employer of choice.

Still think Career Management fails to provide a decent return on investment? Still perceive Career Management to be an option rather than mandatory? Still believe that Career Management encourages people to leave?

In an effort to tackle some of the disparities between what CAN be done with CM and what IS done, we have conducted some research. We surveyed HR Directors via questionnaire and ran semi-structured focus groups to lift the lid of this important area.

We found that there are some powerful reasons driving the adoption of CM strategies and also investigated several key themes. Our results make for interesting reading and could make a difference to how you appeal to, develop and retain your staff.

What is Career Management?

Before we move on to a consideration of the reasons behind the utilisation of Career Management, we ought to take a moment to consider what CM is… and as is important for any well-delineated definition… what CM is not!

In the last CIPD survey on careers in June 2003, CM was defined as…

Planning and shaping the progression or movement of individuals within an organisation by aligning employee preferences and potential with organisational resourcing needs” (p.i)

Our research reinforced the themes of mutuality and reciprocity inherent in the CIPD definition. However, our participants suggested that CM is still poorly understood and rarely put into practice effectively or strategically.

In line with this, one participant spoke of the tension to be found when providing a definition that is short and simple (and therefore easily understood) with one that is complex and nuanced (that picks up on the key themes and issues).

With that in mind the simplest definition that proved popular was that CM is about helping employees… “understand what gets them out of bed in the morning and to appreciate what their career path might be”.

A fuller definition echoed the themes of the CIPD definition… “A compact between employer and employee to take a strategic view of the employee’s career focus for the benefit of both parties”.

We also discussed in our focus groups what CM is not. Here, there was consensus that CM “isn’t training and development, there might be a bit of overlap… neither is it outplacement nor exiting”. The theme that emerged was that CM is not a single approach nor a set of tools and techniques. Rather, it is an overarching strategy employed by organisations to segue the corporate strategy with individual employee needs – as such, CM can call upon all of the different HRD “tools” (training, coaching, mentoring, performance appraisal, succession planning, etc.,) but is not a tool in itself.

Why Career Management?

The rationale for using CM can be viewed from both the individual and organisational perspective.

i) Individual Rationale

There are numerous reasons for individuals to engage with CM. First, CM, when linked with training and development can ensure that individuals stay employable, especially important given the rapid speed at which jobs can change. Second, many people are turning to CM to help them manage their changing values with regards to work. CM offers people an opportunity to see how they can map out different career pathways that may involve part time working or the development of a portfolio career.

ii) Organisational Rationale

The most obvious reason, is that organisations can receive great ROI (as demonstrated tangibly in the Deloitte example above) in terms of increased retention as suggested in one of our focus groups … “if you’re enabling people to leave, they’re more likely to stay – if you don’t, they think ‘I don’t want to work here’ and they leave”. However, there are also other benefits to be had for organisations. First, organisations that offer CM practices can quickly become employers of choice, especially important when trying to attract and retain people of the highest calibre. Second, there is an organisational imperative for developing staff “employability” in that “…employability cuts both ways. Organisations want to retain people who are employable too for the future state of the organisation… a form of ‘future-proofing’ if you will”. Third, although there is a strong argument (and proof!) that CM increases employee retention, CM can help make more porous the boundaries and allow for some staff churn. The circulation and movement of staff will help keep things fresh and improve creativity and innovation – “Organisations can become paralysed by inertia. Some churn is good, you can bring in new people with fresh perspective”. Lastly, CM was seen as an important approach to keep costs down following redundancies – “they make people redundant, then spend money on recruiting people for other areas of the business”. Effectively, CM can save money by helping to redeploy staff.

Underlying many of the reasons for the use of CM, is that it helps build the psychological contract between the organisation and employee – the unwritten rules of emotional engagement between company and worker.

Who is Responsible?

Consistent with the findings from our quantitative survey, the results from the focus groups suggested that CM is best operated as a partnership model where the organisation “creates the landscape for individuals to assume responsibility for managing their careers within organisational boundaries.” In other words, it was argued, there needs to be a sense of reciprocity whereby the organisation provides individuals with adequate support and advice and those who want to follow a different pathway are given “the opportunity to learn, to shadow others and to work on completely different projects.” Ultimate responsibility, however, rests with the individual. After all, no one else has as much invested in their career as the individual. But the reality is often quite different, the general consensus being that both individuals and organisations give mixed messages. Individuals, for example, still expect the organisation to tell them what to do and find it difficult to hold conversations with their line managers around career development opportunities and different career pathways. Similarly, even though organisations seek to encourage employees to be responsible for their own careers, they are often quite paternalistic and end up telling them what to do, which in turn, reinforces the lack of follow-through by individuals. Moreover, organisations often exhibit a lack of trust towards employees. For example, some organisations discourage employees from connecting onto professional networking sites such as LinkedIn ( for fear that they may be poached by competitors.

What Do Organisations Do?

Our quantitative survey revealed there to be four primary CM practices that were most popular.

1. Promote opportunities for internal jobs

The most frequently endorsed practice, was that of promoting internal job opportunities (57% said they “Very Frequently” or “Always” engaged in this practice) should come as little surprise. This activity is free and even helps reduce the costs associated with advertising, hiring and training external applicants. Yet, it may also be considered amongst the least interactive and engaging of CM methods. Indeed, when considering our definition of career management being involved with strategies for aligning employee and organisational objectives, advertising internal vacancies in the absence of a career conversation or coaching fails to meet the definitional criteria.

2. 360° Feedback Surveys

The next most frequently utilised CM practice is the 360° Survey (48% said they “Very Frequently” or “Always” engaged in this practice). This form of performance management is extremely popular in medium and large enterprises. This may have contributed to the frequency with which this practice was endorsed. Similar to the promotion of internal jobs, without a meaningful career discussion, it is hard to see how a 360° Survey in isolation can provide significant insight into carer pathways.

3. Personal Development Plans

The third most popular CM practice (where 38% said they “Very Frequently” or “Always” engaged) was the use of Personal Development Plans (PDP’s). Clearly, in the right context and with appropriate framing, PDP’s can be used to explore career options and transitions. Too often though, the PDP becomes a focus for performance management and for addressing job-specific skill deficits. The bigger question remains (and could not be addressed in our quantitative survey) whether line managers or HR have the sufficient training and/or organisational support to link PDP’s with CM.

4. Outplacement

Exiting or outplacement (33% said they “Very Frequently” or “Always” engaged in this practice) was also seen to be a popular form of CM. It may be that the popularity of this technique is a reflection of the economic times. Whilst some focus group participants did not feel outplacement to be a CM practice – “outplacement is what happens when career management has failed” – it may be considered one of the tools for managing career paths.

What Don’t Organisations Do?

When we asked our survey respondents about CM practices that they don’t use there were three main findings.

1. Career Clinics

The Career Clinic or career-focussed Development Centre was very rarely employed (75% said they “Never” or “Very Infrequently” engaged in this activity). In our focus groups it was felt that this form of intervention was seen as too expensive and unlikely to provide a reasonable ROI.

2. Illustrate Career Paths

Despite being an economical tactic, very few organisations looked to map out potential career paths for employees (59% said they “Never” or “Very Infrequently” engaged in this practice). The focus groups indicated there to be three main reasons for this. First, mapping out a career path was deemed to be “fatalistic” and too predestined. Second, a mapped career path could be considered paternalistic and not in the spirit of co-discovery of aligned career paths. Third, organisations and the nature of work conducted within them is so open to the vagaries of change that “a career map would be out of date before the ink is dry”. Lastly, one participant explained that the danger with career path mapping, is that “you don’t want to tell someone that they have reached a dead end”.

3. Staff Reengagement

The likely reason why Staff Reengagement was not often utilised (56% said they “Never” or “Very Infrequently” engaged in this activity), can again be explained with reference to the current economic downturn. With many companies unsure as to when they can dispense with rounds of redundancies, reengagement could be seen as a risky strategy. Reengaging staff, when there is about to be another layoff could be seen as imprudent.

What Will Organisations Do?

The quantitative data and focus groups converged on three overlapping key areas that organisations are planning to work on in the future. The role of the line manager was prominent in all three areas.

1. Provision of Support and Guidance

Organisations suggested that they would look to provide greater support and guidance for employees (57% said there was a “High Possibility” or they would “Definitely” adopt this practice). It is likely that this is a reflection of damaged morale and how “the psychological contract has been stretched to breaking point” by recent redundancies.

2. Mentoring

The allocation of mentors to guide career management was suggested to be the second most popular practice to be adopted in the future (with 45% suggesting a “High Possibility” or that they would “Definitely” adopt this practice). The reason being that “experienced mentors are in a position to explain how they got to where they are”. Further, one focus group participant suggested that mentoring was a “great way of engaging senior staff by asking them – what will be your legacy?” – mentoring being one of the means by which experienced staff close to retirement can still be involved in CM.

3. Coaching

The use of career coaches was also suggested to be a development for the future (39% said there was a “High Possibility” or that they would “Definitely” adopt this practice). Though the survey did not distinguish between internal versus external coaches, our focus group participants were largely in favour of external coaches given their ability to bring “the perspective of an outsider… [and not] be considered a company stooge”.

For all three of these interventions, the question raised, is the extent to which line managers are appropriately skilled, motivated or appraised against expectations of managing careers.

What Provides the Best ROI?

Before considering the responses to the ROI question… we might ask a (seemingly) simple question – how can we assess the ROI of CM practices?

Not an easy one! One participant suggested that “the number of internal promotions would be a good metric” for assessing how well managers were managing the careers of their direct reports.

There were two clear findings from the survey about which CM practices provide the best ROI.

1. 360° Feedback Surveys

360° Feedback Surveys were considered the best ROI. The widespread popularity and awareness of 360° Feedback Surveys may have contributed to the perception that it provides the best ROI. For many organisations without systematic CM practices, the conversation around the 360° Feedback Survey may be the only opportunity for employees to discuss their futures.

2. Personal Development Plans

PDP’s may have been perceived to be good for ROI, because of their future-orientation and singular focus on the individual.

In the focus groups the perception was that ROI did not derive from a single CM practice or technique, but was rather a result of a strategic approach to CM. Effective CM “breaks the silo mentality and shows people that they don’t need to leave” thereby improving retention and in the long-run reducing costs associated with redundancies and recruitment.

Constraints and Enablers

As with any organisational practice, there are factors that both facilitate effectiveness and those that constrain.

Several constraints were felt to impede the effective adoption of CM. Of these, the most important pertained to the paucity of line management involvement at senior level. It was felt that senior managers not only lacked the training to provide support to individual employees, they were quite “often unskilled in managing their own careers”. In addition, a short-term focus on tangible results and a strong performance-orientation meant that managers were keen to keep their best people and were thus unlikely to encourage CM or promote people out of their teams. These considerations created a lack of buy-in among the line and contributed to negative attitudes towards CM as another fad or change initiative thought up by HR. This situation was thought to be further exacerbated by erroneous perceptions that equate CM to outplacement and redundancy particularly given the current climate – “when people hear ‘career management’ they often think ‘outplacement’ instead”. Many participants perceived that organisations would find it difficult to talk about CM when they are simultaneously laying people off because of the recession.

Another perception thought to prevent CM from being viewed as a value-adding strategy is the idea that it is linked to progression and that employees will inevitably leave, particularly if promotional opportunities are not readily available. The lack of integration with other HR practices and business strategy further constrains its effective use because it makes it more difficult to demonstrate the benefits CM can deliver. By contrast, organisations that were considered to be effective at CM typically had communal, high trust cultures that encouraged employee commitment. Speaking of her experiences at a previous place of employment, one participant commented,

What they did really well was that they build you up individually to be able to do what you wanted even if that meant leaving the organisation. But we all still talk about it as if we were family. We’ve got such good stories about the organisation because career planning, career management allowed us to do what we wanted in the organisation, building on our strengths and it was all part of the culture.”

CM also tended to be focused more widely on all staff across the organisation rather than focusing solely on high flyers or senior populations. The provision of adequate support and relevant training to line managers, the existence of a formalised written CM strategy and its integration with other HR systems were also thought to be key enablers in the effective implementation of CM. In particular, organisations that integrated CM with their resourcing needs and performance management practices were more likely to create shared understandings of business objectives and to develop the capacity of people to achieve these, while encouraging greater employee engagement.

Recommendations and Big Picture

So… after our survey and focus groups, what recommendations can be made for organisations wishing to make the most of CM? These will be considered, before we provide a model that illustrates how CM practices can be linked to existing HR practices and strategies – the big picture if you will.

i) Recommendations

The focus group participants felt strongly that it was necessary to educate individuals on what CM is in terms of its aims and purposes, what it entails in terms of available interventions, whose responsibility it is and how it is being implemented within their respective organisations. Regular appraisals and mechanisms that would enable individuals to know how they are progressing were also strongly recommended.
A particularly interesting notion was the idea that CM should actually start earlier on in the career process while people were still in school. Organisations and key stakeholders within them could potentially play an important role in this regard by, for example, assisting schools with organising career fairs as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility agenda, thereby enabling closer ties with the community.

At the level of the organisation there were also a number of recommendations. First, and probably most important among these is the development of a culture that supports the widespread use of CM. In particular the corporate culture facilitates continuous adoption of CM that is well integrated within wider HR systems. CM needs to be transparent in order to encourage trust, employee engagement and to mutually benefit the individual and the organisation.

However, a supportive culture, will not be enough. The relevant systems need to be in place and line managers need to be rewarded or incentivised to engage in CM. This should include providing managers with the necessary training to hold meaningful career conversations. Lastly, it is crucial to identify rigorous and tangible criteria that can be used to assess the efficacy of any CM intervention.

ii) The Big Picture

Effectively, what we have argued is that CM, rather than being an isolated technique or activity, should be firmly embedded within the culture, systems and processes of the organisation. The model presented in Figure 1 shows how CM is integral to an effective human resource and performance management system.

CM provides a focus around which to integrate the various HR activities that make up the HR systems and practices in the organisation, such as, performance management, training and development and even forecasting and resourcing activities. These both inform and are informed by the strategic objectives of the organisation. In this way, CM plays a key role in contributing to the development as well as management of the core capabilities and people resourcing needs within the organisation.

In the long run, successful CM integration should allow both the employee and organisation to set aside the time for researching and planning their careers strategically, rather than leaving their career journey to chance.

Figure 1. An Integrated Career Management Model

CM model

List of typical career management tools/approaches

Management training in career conversation

Staff re-engagement

Self-help workbooks

Performance Appraisals/Performance feedback (e.g. 360s)

Career clinic/centre (service available to all employees)

Development centres

Psychological tools (e.g. personality inventories, Vocational Preference and Interest questionnaires, etc)

Career paths and grids (e.g. promotion pathways for career advancement)

Careers acancies/guidance (1 to 1)


Managerial support/guidance

Personal development plans


Promotions and lateral job moves

Work-life balance training

Time management training

Stress management training

Project management training

Leadership training course for single/select employee(s)

Leadership training course for large numbers of employees

Team working skills training

Interpersonal skills training

Job matching (offer to move people to fit acanciesonal needs)

Job posting (advertising job acancies to all members of staff)

Succession planning

Fast track/high flyers programmes

Outplacement services

Key Questions

  • What do your employee satisfaction surveys tell you? Is Career Management an issue?
  • Are their “hot spots” in your business where career trajectories are less than clear?
  • What is your business doing to reengage staff after rounds of redundancies?
  • Does your culture support employees managing their careers?
  • Does your company have the skills to have important career conversations?
  • Are there mechanisms in place to reward managers who help staff develop?

About the Research

Quantitative Survey

We surveyed 56 HR Directors (or most senior HR employee) and asked them to provide information about different Career Management approaches. We asked questions like…

  1. What does your organisation currently use?
  2. What might your organisation use in the future?
  3. What provides best Return on Investment when developing individuals?
  4. What provides best Return on Investment when developing the organisation?
  5. Who is responsible for career management?

Qualitative Focus Groups

We held three semi-structured focus group sessions. One in Manchester and two in London. Attendees were senior HR company personnel, HR consultants and senior managers. There were 28 attendees from the private and public sector, spanning a wide range of industries.

[1] Any quotations in italics are taken from the focus group transcripts

Mark Batey CPsychol. PhD

is a Creativity Specialist at Manchester Business School, UK

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