Are Lack of Career Paths Hurting Retention in Your Firm? 4 Practical Solutions
  • A promising Millennial gives notice because he isn’t clear about his future in his fast growing global company.
  • Another high performer leaves because she doesn’t see work alternatives that will allow more work/life balance.
  • A talented young leader takes another job because sees no possibility for moving up in the organization.

You’re losing good people because they don’t see a future in your organization. But you don’t have time, resources or job opportunities to develop elaborate career paths. Here are four things you can do to improve the retention of your best workers.

1. Focus on the skills “high potentials” want to develop, not job openings.

When an employee is looking for a promotion and there is no job available, don’t concentrate on the lack of career path opportunities. Focus, instead, on the skills they want to develop.

“Tell me the perfect job for you. Why is that job so appealing? What skills do you have that qualify you for that job? What skills would you have to build?”

That’s the advice of Richard Finnegan, author of The Stay Interview: A Manager’s Guide to Keeping the Best and Brightest.

If your employees aren’t sure what skills they need, have them meet or shadow someone in their desired job and report back on key skills they need. Then help them create a development plan with mentoring, special projects, coursework and feedback.

The CIO in one rural state government IT department takes this approach with her young technical staff. She knows these skilled workers aren’t going to stay long term. But the CIO’s goal is always to extend their tenure several years by making sure they’re developing skills they value.

2. Emphasize learning - cross training, job rotations, outside courses, special projects

Managers often lose young employees who feel they aren’t learning enough. To keep the learning intensity high and to add to their bench strength, one Wisconsin printing company uses a practice they call “3x3 cross training.”

This formal program tries to cross-train every employee in three job skills or functions. And the company’s goal is to have at least three employees trained to step into each job or function.

This approach not only reduces monotony for young employees who might have mastered one job, but it also gives them a chance to develop new skills and discover unexpected interests in other roles

The CEO explained, “Where employees can move is always a challenge in a small firm, but cross training is a good tool for keeping engagement high. It gives our employees more ideas of how their careers could progress in the company.”

3. Maximize use of flexible and virtual work options.

Making jobs more flexible or virtual can sometimes override the lack of promotion opportunities in an organization.  A bank in California is intentionally offering more flexible work hours and a less than full time option in some roles. “I got suckered into the credit world because they let me work from home when my kids were young,” laughed one SVP at the bank.

The CEO of Pennsylvania bank told me this week, “If you’re a great employee, I’d rather have 80% of your time, than none.”

Despite recent headlines about big firms like IBM and Aetna bringing more employees back into centralized offices, I am definitely seeing a trend toward structuring more virtual jobs. A senior strategy executive for a West Coast bank lives in Boston. A young research analyst in North Carolina relocates to Wisconsin and keeps her job.

Organizational flexibility that appeals to high performers will often trump promotion opportunities.

4. Help employees who want to leave!

Let employees know you’ll support them even if they want to follow a career path that takes them out of the company. It seems counter intuitive, but this can actually increase retention! One large Texas-based accounting firm recognized this dynamic and maintains an “alumni” career path. These workers have declared their intent to leave the firm to pursue other jobs. For example, “I want to be CFO of a small manufacturing company.”

In return, management asks, “How can we prepare you for that kind of role in a couple of years?” Demonstrating a real commitment to an employee’s evolving career goals is a huge step in building trust. And the managing partner of this accounting firm says the majority of people who put themselves on the “alumni” path end up not leaving the firm.

In the end, building real trust in career development discussions is a critical factor that can help make up for the lack of elaborate career paths in your organization.


Contact me to discuss ways we can help your organization implement more practical solutions for reducing the high costs of turnover.