Kristen Fitzpatrick (MBA 2003), Managing Director, HBS Career & Professional Development, has been a leader in the career development field for 18 years and countless HBS students and alumni have benefited from her coaching and guidance. Throughout her career, she has also led successful teams across industries and directly managed hundreds of employees who have grown their careers under her leadership.

As part of her role, Fitzpatrick also regularly provides support to recruiting partners as they seek to recruit, hire, and retain top talent. One way to do so is to provide strong career development support that will create a pipeline of talent and allow your employees to thrive and serve as positive ambassadors for your organization throughout their careers.

To implement effective career development at your organization, Fitzpatrick recommends the following steps and strategies to be shared with your managerial team.

Open Lines of Communication

First and foremost, the career development conversation should not be reserved for the annual review. Instead, it should happen at regular intervals and involve the right stakeholders.

In Career & Professional Development, weekly one on one meetings between managers and direct reports are the norm and the career development conversation is ongoing. “I tend to think about things in 90-day terms, so managers and their reports look at what the employee needs to accomplish in their job over the next three months. Then they discuss what the employee can do to grow their skills and what extra opportunities they can take on,” said Fitzpatrick.

Then, as extra projects will often be within different teams, communication between managers is also critical. Having everyone aligned when an employee is doing work for a different department keeps everyone on the same page with how an employee wants to be spending their time, and what is necessary for them to succeed in their current role.

Understand Your Employees’ Motivations

A critical part of these ongoing career development conversations is understanding what your employees are trying to get out of their current roles.

For example, Fitzpatrick explained, “Is this role a means to an end and they are trying to get to the next rung on the ladder, or are there certain skills they are looking to acquire so they can continue to be a specialist in this segment? Those are two really different things.” Recognizing what employees are hoping to get out of the role is the best way to provide support and stretch assignments that make sense.

Fitzpatrick also noted that part of understanding your employees is knowing when to stop pushing if an employee is very happy in their role and isn’t looking to move on. “Sometimes in our world it’s all about ‘what’s the plan?’ and ‘what’s the next step?’, but if an employee is happy, concentrate on keeping them happy and then touch base in another three months,” she recommended.

Recognize Their Strengths

Next, Fitzpatrick recommends moving from motivators to strengths and helping employees recognize what they are great at and ways to do more of it.

“I’m not a fan of eating your spinach if you don’t like spinach,” Fitzpatrick explained. “If you love spinach, go for it and eat as much as you want! But if you hate it, let’s find something you do like and focus on that.”

This important step of pinpointing strengths can be achieved through assessments, but also through conversations with attentive managers. “Without any formal diagnostics, managers can help employees see themselves the way they see them. For example, you can say ‘I’ve noticed that you tend to enjoy really creative work when a project is not defined and you’re able to come up with something on your own.’ Or on the flip side, ‘I’ve noticed you really love following a process and having steps to check off along the way, so let’s think about different roles that play to those strengths and interests.’”

Be Thoughtful About Stretch Projects

With this understanding of strengths and motivators, managers can help employees demonstrate them in the role they are in so they can start to prove they have what it takes for the role they want.

“This is going to require active management,” Fitzpatrick said. “Almost certainly your employees will need to pick up extra projects or get extra exposure to things that are not part of their jobs, but they need to show they can do.”

The challenge is ensuring that stretch projects don’t take away from the employee’s day job. “Hitting it out of the park in the day job should be baseline,” said Fitzpatrick. “Employees need to understand the obligation to their current role and team and then the secondary part is growing your skills. If they’re really, really good, employees will figure out how to do both.”

Establish Transparent Paths to Success

Another strategy Fitzpatrick recommends for employers is to be transparent around the skills employees need to progress. During her time managing teams at a leading multinational manufacturing corporation, Fitzpatrick recalled very specific and transparent metrics shared with employees around the skills they would need to succeed in their next role.

“Organizations should spend a bit of time putting on paper the skills required of people at each level,” said Fitzpatrick. “At my prior organization, it was very clear what skills you needed to be proficient at to move from a level one manager to a level two. With that in mind, you could start developing those skills and demonstrating them. Some organizations also make it a point to communicate to employees that they need to be operating at the next level up for at least six months before being promoted. I think because they are so clear, it’s easier on employees to know what is expected.”

At the same time, it’s important to be transparent when there is not a path forward for an employee who is seeking a promotion. “If a promotion is not possible, be very direct in saying that and discuss how the employee can get ready for that opportunity somewhere else,” Fitzpatrick recommended. “This can be hard because you lose good people when you don’t have something that meets their developmental need, but it’s worth it in the end so that people feel supported.”

Seek Additional Help

Career & Professional Development has an in-house team of career coaches who can support career development at the group and individual level. However, for companies without career coaches on staff, there are external and internal resources you can tap into to directly serve your staff or train your managers.

For example, some companies choose to have a career coach on retainer that employees can work with, or they will hire career coaches for employees on an ad-hoc basis for discussions around career progression, professional development, and managing workloads.

Managers can also access training on effective coaching skills or how to develop leadership skills within their teams. “It’s on the manager to understand the block in the way of the employee and help remove barriers so they can enable employees to put their energy into what matters most,” said Fitzpatrick. This is a skill that can be taught and will ultimately help further the career development of your whole team.

Another option is a customized executive education program held on-site or at a university, like the programs offered through Harvard Business School. Or encourage employees to utilize internal universities within your organization that teach strategy setting, leadership, and giving and receiving feedback.

Key Takeaways

Career development is an important factor in employee satisfaction and retention as well as organizational success. To do it well takes attentive managers willing and able to invest in their people. It’s also a team effort that involves transparency at the organizational level about expectations and career pathways and open lines of communication among departments.

As you continue to support your employees’ career development, keep in mind these best practices:

  • Open - and maintain - lines of communication
  • Recognize employee strengths
  • Be thoughtful about stretch projects
  • Establish transparent paths to success
  • Seek additional help from experts