How to make the right career choices in a dream labour market?

How to make the right career choices in a dream labour market?

Right now it’s a hot job market, which makes helping others to manage their careers even more important. One (more) of the challenges of the increased pace and amount of work that mystifyingly continues post-COVID is finding the time to help others do this, and yet it couldn’t be a better time to provide this support. 

There may be plenty of career opportunities and choices available now – will you retain the right people, and will they make the right choices not just for today but also for their future?

As CEOs seek to stem the tide of resignations, deal with so-called ‘quiet quitting’ and increased employee demands, take the time to dig beneath the surface to satisfy yourself that you are providing the kind of support that people appreciate by adding value to their career development and progress. 

As a younger leader I was always interested in hearing the career journeys of senior leaders: and younger leaders still seek this kind of understanding. Giving people access to your career story, articulating how you managed your career and identifying the factors for your success breaks down barriers while providing useful career advice. 

But this is something to avoid: many senior leaders label their career moves and successes as unplanned and opportunistic. Even if it is how it went, it gives the impression that all it takes is talent to succeed. We know that just isn’t so. It’s a matter of reflecting on what happened and why, the key relationships and the contextual factors that supported your rise. Make it humble, yes, but also provide some clarity about what people can do.

Career management is beset by a series of paradoxes. It’s helpful to start by understanding what they are:

  1. Opportunity and planning – it’s about both, and the clearer you are about what you want, the easier it is to make the most of the opportunities that may come your way.
  2. Ambition and talent – they are not the same thing, although they are often treated as if they were. One of the biggest mistakes organisations make when identifying emerging talent and hiring is to choose ambition over talent. Ambition, and affinity bias, often helps people to stand out, meaning more opportunities come their way. Talent may sit quietly in the corner and be taken for granted or ignored. Pay more attention to talent and less to ambition.
  3. Identity and reputation – how individuals see themselves is not necessarily how others see them. The two perspectives need to be aligned. Helping others to do accurate and realistic self-assessments of their talent will help, and ensuring the organisation does the same will go even further.
  4. Activity and reflection – when people think of their careers they often think of the next course to do. While undertaking learning activities is indeed critical, activity should be balanced with deep reflection. Developing a regular reflection practice, such as journalling, will bolster learning, as well as keep career management intentions front of mind.
  5. Jobs and achievements – a career isn’t just about job titles, although we often default to thinking it is. Not everyone wants to be CEO of a large listed company, but most people do want to feel a sense of fulfilment and achievement. Focusing on important achievements is a more flexible and fulfilling way to think about future career goals.
  6. Ladder and lattice – most organisations now operate with relatively flat structures and the metaphor of a career as a ladder is pretty outdated. Even in its heyday, I think the ladder was something available to a select few. The idea of a career lattice seems to make more sense. Not everyone wants to get to the top, and that’s good, because there isn’t the room for it! Broadening out skills and experiences is important for both future success at level, as well as contributing to success at more senior levels. 
  7. Accountability and ownership – leaders have accountability for helping their people to progress their careers. I heard just recently of a manager who refused to release one of their team members to fill a promotional role in another part of their organisation. So short-sighted! This is just one of the reasons why people might join organisations but they leave leaders. Take accountability for helping people meaningfully develop their careers while encouraging them to take the driver’s seat: only they can own their career.

Having regular career conversations with your boss should be a highlight of your working relationship

We rightly think that our boss ought to be our biggest career supporter, although sadly, that’s often not the case. Bosses who coach and develop their people experience an engagement premium. It is one of the critical factors in retaining talented people, and one of the biggest attractors of talent. 

You can bolster your reputation as a great boss to work for by amplifying your support for career development. 

Firstly, help your team to navigate the six paradoxes above: 

  • Encourage them to devote time to managing their career. Have a monthly meeting with them that is explicitly focused on their aspirations, accomplishments and development progress.
  • Give them the tools to realistically self-assess their capability and potential. Give them feedback aligned with how they seek to develop.
  • Help them to aspire and to plan. Help them to gain clarity about what they want to achieve.
  • Show them how to prioritise the development of their learning agility, and make sure they are learning from setbacks. Setbacks suck, so best to take something useful from them.
  • Encourage them to gather around a range of supporters, such as mentors, advocates etc, as well as yourself, who will help them throughout their career.
  • Take and make every opportunity to have constructive career conversations with them.

Secondly, ask helpful coaching questions in your career conversations with your team:

  • How can I support you with your career development?
  • What’s your career aspiration?
  • What stops you from devoting time to your career development? What do we need to change?
  • What options have you considered? What haven’t you considered?
  • What daunts or challenges you in managing your career?
  • What feedback from me would help you most?
  • What do you need to know?
  • How do you believe you could make a bigger/better contribution here?
  • What skills/strengths/experiences do you have that we don’t know about/could use more?
  • What should we stop asking you to take responsibility for?

And to get the right balance between accountability and ownership, suggest they regularly ask themselves these questions (and from time-to-time, share their answers with you):

  • What am I exceeding/doing well at?
  • What have I recently mastered? How did I master it?
  • What am I struggling with? Why is it a struggle?
  • What conflicts do I experience?
  • What motivates and energises me about my work and career? 
  • What challenges/daunts me?
  • What do I enjoy most about my work? Least?
  • How engaged/satisfied do I feel with my work and career prospects? 
  • What do I need from my boss to help my career growth? What’s one or two specific things that would help right now?
  • What is my next move? What do I seek to achieve by moving/advancing/broadening, taking my next step?

Helping people to achieve their dreams isn’t just about the right labour market, it’s something that you can influence. Quality career conversations and a true commitment to helping people advance towards their aspirations will turn you into a dream boss, and while that might not mean 100% retention, it will certainly make it harder for people to leave you.

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