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Progress, growth, scale. These appear to have been the bywords for success in company life. Is the company growing? Are people growing and progressing with it and is the scale of profit, market share and impact larger and more spread?

Careers have been inextricably linked to this. If you’re flying high, you’re moving upwardly as the company grows and diversifies.

People have had the aspiration to be Vice President, Director, Chief Executive Officer. Well some, not all.

Except there’s something different about the 21st century version of this.

I’ve written here before that I NEVER wanted to be an HR Director and respected hugely those who wanted that and achieved that. So my career pathway was never just up. It was more along. I wanted to know and do more about more and not worry about that laser precision route to the top. And it appears I’m not alone in that. Whether it’s just the people I hang around with or just the simple fact that the world’s shifting but that upward trajectory isn’t the be-all and end-all it once appeared to be.

If you believe generational research (and don’t believe the hype that surrounds this) the new way is a more transient, discovery-based approach to careers – if people want jobs at all and don’t go down the “gig” route (that’s also got some truths but also a stack of hyperbole).

So what do we – as HR professionals – do in responding to this shift however big or normalised this “not-just-up” is becoming?

I think it gives us a great opportunity so here’s a trio of posers that run through my thinking in this area.

  1. Better job design is critical. We have been SO conditioned into thinking 7.5 hours per day and padding out a job to fill that time with work. In doing more for and getting more from our people, we could do something about setting out HARD WIRED development time. So that people can find their calling/career path as part of the offer/work. Designing in career-enhancing elements should be good for short term stimulus and long-term commitment to a purpose bigger than picking up a salary.
  2. Discovery-based learning should significantly help. More cross-functional mentoring, assignments and project working as learning. We could do with internal market places where people can bid to join a project to add input and learn which may influence their career direction/pathway. It’s not about boxed up development programmes here.
  3. Treating people like entrepreneurs will show belief. Showing people you’re proud to have them working with you and that we all have untapped potential should lift spirits and horizons for people. And this isn’t a white collar calling (a term in ITSELF is out of step with working “uniforms” of knowledge workers – e.g. sneakers/denim/t-shirt) – it’s about welders, call centre operators, retail assistants, serving staff in restaurants, baristas, production liners, warehousers, truck drivers and fault fixers. This means people – previously buried under layers of the hierarchy – might JUST have the chance to plot a trajectory to something that inspires them whilst they’re doing their best in the tasks we don’t NORMALLY associate with career prospects AND create their very own career path within a myriad of options the organisation is creating for all.

Career mapping is ultimately a choice and a chance. The choice of the individual to just not settle for a predictable career route and a chance this will be enabled. The organisational architecture and culture needs to allow for that choice to be given as many possible options to allow people to find their place in the scheme of things.

As HR professionals we have 1 key thing to do here; create the choice architecture. And that – in my view – needs a very different approach to that we have now. I’m not sure AT ALL that 9 boxes on a grid is going to get us the very best from all the known and unknown talents we have in our workplaces.

Many people themselves need to discover what their calling is – and we as HR professionals can take a huge amount of pride in creating the conditions that bring this to life.

A career is for everyone, not just those with a head for heights.

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