L&D Best Practices

Forget About Career Ladders: 4 Steps to Career Development

Shelley Osborne

Head of Learning & Development at Udemy

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L&D Best Practices

March 13, 2018

Career development is incredibly challenging in the modern workforce. In fact, 78% of L&D leaders say their top challenge is keeping employees’ skills up to speed with change. This is not too surprising when we consider the fact that 52% of business leaders believe that technology will have a significant impact on their industry in the next 5 years. The rapid pace of change makes it difficult to predict what people need to be learning to grow in their roles because the required skills are always changing. In order to remain competitive in this environment, companies have to be agile and flexible in the way they think about career development.

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With the fluidity of skills coming and going, we are moving toward a “role-less” future of work. Career paths will be defined by constant reskilling and movement into new kinds of roles – so instead of job-hopping to new companies, employees will be constantly “role-hopping” within their company.

In addition to these changes to the business environment, employees themselves have increased expectations around growth and development opportunities at work. Millennials rate training and development as the most important job benefit, and even consider it more important than pay. But people of all ages are shifting away from the “come and collect a paycheck” mentality and are looking for learning and growth opportunities when they evaluate roles and companies.

These changes mean that companies are increasingly focused on learning in the workplace, which is something L&D leaders love to hear. Here are some of the ideas that are guiding us as we rethink our approach to learning and career development at Udemy.

1. Forget about career ladders

Historically, most career development conversations focused on the “career ladder” analogy – you started at the bottom and worked your way up to the top. But this doesn’t accurately describe today’s working environment. It’s becoming increasingly rare for people to follow a linear path and much more common to focus on growth as people change industries and fields.

A better way of describing career development is as a skyscraper. On a skyscraper, you can navigate in a less structured, more organic way – you can go up or down, or you can move across to a whole different area on the same floor depending on your interests and goals.

We need to think about career development beyond promotions. In the modern workforce, there are a number of factors that influence career development, and this development will not always come in the form of a promotion. Employees may make changes based on personal or business needs, they may opt to explore new industries and professions, or they may switch departments within the same company. And in fast-growing companies, it’s increasingly common for employees to take on expanded roles. This means that someone’s role may look different at the 3-, 6-, and 9-month marks because they’ve adapted to the requirements at that particular moment.

This shift away from the clearly defined “ladder” means that career development is messy because we don’t necessarily know the path. It’s not about telling someone how to get from point A to point B; it’s giving them a map so they can figure out where they want to go.

Here at Udemy, we encourage horizontal movement and internal transfers into new roles. On my own team I’ve had two people join from different departments in the company. Each person started out with a 20% project to try out aspects of the role. This gave them the opportunity to explore a new department and role before fully committing to it. Because Udemy is a learning company, giving employees the support to learn and grow is at the heart of our L&D mission.

2. Design a career development program around introspection, goal-setting, and mentorship

We’re currently redesigning the Udemy career development program around three key elements: introspection, goal-setting, and mentorship.

Employees will begin by taking time to really understand themselves – what have been the peak experiences that have brought them happiness, when have they felt most engaged and in “flow”? And on the other side of the coin, what have been the valleys? This exploration will also help them identify which values matter most to them, whether that’s creativity, variety, influence, or any number of other things.

I went through this exercise myself with a career coach when I knew I wanted to leave secondary education but hadn’t determined what I’d do next. It was through this exploration that I realized I wanted to pursue a career in corporate L&D, so I can honestly say it was a life- and career-changing experience for me.

After going through introspective activities, employees can focus on meaningful goal-setting, applying the learnings they have about themselves to their work. For example, which positions should they pursue? What type of projects should they get involved in? In other words, they can look for ways to get closer to their “peak.”

Finally, our program will focus on providing mentorship. This means having strong managers who can guide and connect with employees, point them in the right direction, and help them focus on learning.

3. Approach learning from all angles

A career development program that comes from the top down isn’t going to be successful – we need to come at it from all angles.

Managers need to guide employees and help them focus on learning. At the organizational level, we can also identify the skills that are going to be most relevant to our employees and offer training there. When we find good professional development courses, we can share those resources across our organization. But ultimately, individuals know best what they need to learn. That’s why we recommend providing content libraries like Udemy for Business so they can access the learning they need at the moment they need it rather than waiting 3, 6, or 12 months for traditional L&D programs to catch up.

In addition to providing the resources to facilitate learning, we need to look for different ways to make space for learning, whether that’s by putting time on the calendar or integrating learning into career development conversations. See 9 Steps to Overcome the Biggest Obstacle to Learning: Time for more ideas on how to do this. We ask managers to regularly check in with their direct reports about career development and encourage them to ask questions like, “What will you be doing for learning over the next 3, 6, or 12 months?” “Which courses will you be taking?” “Which conferences will you be attending?” These frequent check-ins show employees that learning is allowed, permitted, and wholeheartedly accepted.

4. Define your goals

For any career development program, there will be different goals for employees, managers, and the L&D team.

Employees can look for opportunities to learn the skills that will be most useful for them. This is why self-reflection is so important. By understanding what they’re hoping to achieve in the next few stages of their career, they can focus on development goals that align with those objectives.

Managers can act as mentors and guide performance conversations. By making this a regular part of check-ins with their direct reports, managers can ensure that learning is always a priority and employees know that they’re encouraged to look for learning opportunities. While old-school performance reviews were a way of summing up what you did, this new approach to performance and feedback should point to a path forward.

Finally, the L&D team can create the conditions where people can access the learning they need. And we can measure our success by looking at employee engagement scores as well as numbers around retention and attrition.

Encourage self-directed learning

It’s an exciting time in the workforce – employees have never been encouraged to learn and grow as much as they are now, and everyone is responsible for learning in some way. Remember that ultimately, employees need to seek out learning that’s relevant and meaningful for them in a self-directed way. Our role as managers and L&D teams is simply to help them discover what that means and provide the right supportive environment so they can achieve their career development goals.

Shelley Osborne is Head of L&D at Udemy. She has 14 years of experience in the education sector and corporate learning and development. Previously, she was VP of Learning & Development at Farside HR Solutions, specializing in talent leadership, management training, and soft skills development in the startup space in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a Master’s degree in Education from the University of Calgary where she specialized in gamification and instructional leadership.

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