Career Path, Talent Pipeline, and other cliches that miss


As the economy begins chugging back to life and the “jobless recovery” starts to give way to employment growth, leaders are faced with some daunting statistics.  According to recent information from the Center for Creative Leadership 95% of high potentials say they are committed to their organization, 21% also say they are actively looking elsewhere.  That’s a fifth of your top people looking to leave people!  The war for talent is not only being fought externally but internally as well.

Several studies indicate increased engagement for those that feel they are regularly challenged and receive continual development during their employment.  Some companies are still blind to these indicators and continue to focus outwards for top talent, negating the human capital they may already possess and most likely at their own peril.

However, even during these difficult economic times, many companies see the long term benefit in developing their employees and are doing so in earnest.  To the rest, it might be a good idea to look 5 years ahead and plan for who will be leading the company since most of the Baby Boomers who hung in there for the past few years to let their IRAs and 401ks recover will be retiring by then.  Then you will be back to paying though the nose for the talent you could have had in your backyard if you had just developed them into the leaders you will need.

But even some of the forward thinking companies are getting it wrong.  I become skeptical when employers tell me they are developing a career path or talent pipeline.  And the reason for my skepticism is both these terms operate under a fundamental assumption that may not be entirely true for all your top talent.  A career path and talent pipeline all suggest funneling talent in specified direction, usually vertical promotions from one position to the next higher position.  While not inherently bad, it assumes development for every employee means promotions, and that is not always the case.

Perhaps you know of an employee like this; one that is very happy doing the job they have and has no desire to get promoted.  If your company is under the career path mentality, then what do you do to develop this person?  She does not want to be on your specified career path so participating in developmental activities that only serve to direct her into a place she does not want to go is seen by her as a waste of effort.  And sadly, in this model this otherwise good worker is treated as a defective employee that is not ambitious.  When in truth, her ambition simply is in a direction your career path does not does not take her.

Talent Pipeline has a similar connotation and perhaps even a more pernicious paradigm attached to it.  When I think of pipelines I think of gas, water, oil, corn, and other commodities.  By the definition of a commodity, this places humans as a good with no qualitative differentiation.  And this I think is a dangerous view of human capital.  If there is value in intellectual capital such that we create “non-compete” agreements to protect it, then human capital most certainly has individuated value.  And it should be treated as such, not as undifferentiated cattle that are herded into the appropriate pipeline.

In a world that is increasingly complex, these old views of developing talent do not fit.  A career path and a talent pipeline both hold a similar fault in this new global economy and that is: they both assume a predictable future for the company and the skills that will ensure success.  As we look to the education industry, more than half the degrees offered today did not exist 20 years ago.  Some did not exist 5 years ago and many others are being explored as the educational needs of the world expand.  The workplace is just as unpredictable which is why career pathing for most companies, does not stem the tide of exited talent.

What needs to be embraced is the idea that whether or not an employee is being developed is entirely up to them.  Similar to being a “good communicator”, being good at “developing employees” is a judgment to be made by the receiving party.  This entails managers and employees talking openly about development options without any preconceived agenda.  If you want more engaged employees then development in a way that serves them also serves the company, even if the benefit seems indirect.  Happier employees work harder, accomplish more, and stay longer than unhappy people.  If they feel they are getting developed in a way that benefits them, chances of them being happier with their career go up.  If the development is direct relation to their current position, then you have double benefit.

In his book The Dream Manager, Matthew Kelly asserts that people go to work to become better versions of themselves.  Sometimes that is as simple as buying a new house, or putting their kids through college.  In any event, it opens up the idea that professional development does not always mean professional promotions.  Abraham Maslow and his often accredited “Hierarchy of Needs” also support this basic psychological principle that people have a strong desire to “self-actualize”; which can best be described as the desire to see what else we are capable of.  Here is where some companies make the error in thinking that an employee who may be intrinsically asking “what next for me” is synonymous with “what is the next level of management for me.”

By creating a career path or talent pipeline you may be alienating many of your great employees who are not looking to get promoted but still want to develop.  I actually left a company because they wanted to promote me and would not entertain my desire to transfer laterally to a department I was more keenly interested in (and incidentally have since made my career).

As employers we can get locked into a performance inhibiting pattern known as “functional fixedness” where we only see something for what is was designed to do rather than what it is capable of.  This can have tragically limiting effects on generating solutions to problems.  The same can be true of how we view our employees.  If we only see them as a [insert title here] it is hard to imagine what else they may be capable of.  By opening up our views beyond titles and designed vertical paths, we can have a greater impact on employee development, engagement, and increased capability.  All of this while lowering talent acquisition costs, reducing workplace conflicts (due to unhappy people), and decreasing the intellectual drain some companies may soon experience.

Have a conversation with your employees and ask what they would like to do if qualifications and current status was not an obstacle.  Don’t ask them where they want to be in 5 years, as chances are, they do not know or cannot see the steps it will take to get them there.  Ask instead about areas they are interested in, things they would like to become, and what they think it would take to get them there.  And here is the important part; even if their career development goals do not directly benefit you, listen and help them get more of what they want.  If your employees are getting more of what they need from you, chances are you will get more of what you need from them as well.

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One thought on “Career Path, Talent Pipeline, and other cliches that miss

  1. Pingback: Performance Management v Development « Peak Alignment

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