The “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to career advancement is ubiquitous. Most people early in their careers simply do not receive the guidance they need to advance, and an employee that doesn’t understand how to advance, almost certainly won’t. Rather than lose talent, focus on creating sustainable career advancement possibilities in your orgs.
One day, a little over ten years ago, a young employee named Zach walked into his boss’s corner office and resigned. After three years with the company, a successful recruitment firm in the Cayman Islands, Zach had had enough.
The previous day, Zach’s boss had called an all-hands meeting to announce that the company was continuing its expansion with a new overseas office in Bermuda. At first, Zach felt overcome with excitement. A new office meant a vacancy for Country Manager, the opportunity he’d been waiting for to take his career to the next level.
As the meeting wore on and more details were revealed, Zach’s excitement quickly soured. The Country Manager position had already been filled. And by an external hire.
This was the last straw. By his count, it was the third time he’d been passed over for a promotion in as many years. To make matters worse, the company hadn’t even spoken to him about the role, let alone given him the opportunity to apply.
For Zach’s boss, his resignation came as a shock. Zach was a young man living the dream, with no family responsibilities, earning six figures in the idyllic, tax-free Cayman Islands. What was not to love?!
When Zach revealed his reason for resigning during his exit interview a few weeks later, his boss was even more flummoxed. In three months of planning for the new office, no one ever mentioned Zach’s name as a candidate for the Country Manager role.
The truth is that, although Zach was a capable consultant, he had shown none of the drive or ambition his boss expected to see in someone with a desire to advance.
Although he met his targets, Zach left the office every day at five o’clock. He never came to his boss with an idea or the solution to a problem. He never volunteered to lead a project. He poo-pooed every initiative the boss devised to move the company forward. Worst of all, in his three years with the company, Zach had never mentioned his desire to advance, let alone his ambition to head up a new overseas office.
Zach’s boss ruminated on the experience for months, trying to fathom how Zach could have believed that he was the natural choice while, in truth, he was never in the running.
After much reflection, the boss had an epiphany. The reason Zach hadn’t mentioned his ambition was simply that his boss had never asked. And the reason Zach hadn’t done any of the things his boss had expected was that his boss had never told Zach what those things were or helped him develop the necessary skills. The problem wasn’t Zach, but the boss himself.
Zach’s boss had a moment of panic. Who else in the company was harboring a secret ambition to advance? The boss knew the answer immediately: everyone. While not everyone wants to be a Country Manager, everyone wants to advance.
This was a lesson he had learned in his ten years as an executive recruiter. Candidates don’t work with a recruiter just to find a job. Invariably, they already have a job. Employees work with recruiters to find advancement.
The story of Zach and his boss isn’t just a cautionary tale for people leaders but the origin story of CareerPoint.com, the virtual coaching platform for early and mid-career employees. And the boss in the story was me.
How did a single resignation provide the spark for a movement that’s grown to 80 coaches with thousands of devoted coaches all over the world?
When I recounted my experience with Zach to clients and friends who led teams of their own, they all said the same thing: they had a Zach in their team. Or a whole team of Zachs!
It turned out the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to career advancement wasn’t unique to my company. It was ubiquitous. Most people early in their careers simply do not receive the guidance they need to advance.
Don’t take my word for it. CareerPoint’s research partnership with Kellogg College at the University of Oxford, led by one of the UK’s leading HR experts, in conjunction with private sector partners in a range of industry sectors, found that, while 94% of employees aged 25 to 35 “wanted to advance with their current employer”, only 30% had “a good understanding of how to advance”. That’s not a gap but a chasm. An employee that doesn’t understand how to advance, almost certainly won’t.
Closing the gap isn’t just good for employees but also creates value for the company.
An expansive study by employee experience platform CultureAmp from 2021, looking at the reasons employees leave their jobs, found that “[lack of career] growth was the number one reason cited across every tenure group”. Gallup estimates the cost of employee turnover at between 50 and 200% of salary as valuable relationships and know-how walk out the door.
The coaching solution we devised flipped the script on a framework I’d been using for years in my work as an HR consultant, which I coined “the Employee Value Curve”. To cut a long story short, if the value of a company comes from its employees, the net value of each employee must equal the total value of the company. The only way to increase the company's value is to move the curve up, and the only way to do that is to move one or more employees up the curve.
How can you move someone up the curve? For HR or L & D professionals, this is the 64-million-dollar question. You could try improving their skills, judgment, motivation or morale. But, as any experienced manager knows, trying to move an employee up the curve without their cooperation would be like pushing an elephant up a hill. And just like getting an elephant up a hill, the best way to move an employee up the value curve is to give them a good reason to do it on their own.
Luckily, there is one. The one thing nearly every employee wants, in one form or another: career advancement. Moving up the curve doesn’t just add value for the company; since the most valuable employees also tend to be the most successful, moving up the curve is also the best way to create sustainable career advancement.
CareerPoint coaches help your employees understand how they create value, how to increase it, why the value they create drives their career advancement, and why increasing their value is a win for them and a win for their employer.
Our industry agnostic assessment breaks down the concept of “value” into eight constituent elements that we call value drivers, including Relationships, Expertise, Innovation, and Impact on Morale. You can try it out for yourself here.
For any ambitious early and mid-career employee seeking advancement, understanding the value drivers and how to apply them in their unique role and industry sector is key. While naturally successful people understand how to “solve for value” instinctively, and a lucky few learn it from others, the Employee Value Curve provides a framework that anyone can grasp with a little help from one of our certified CareerPoint coaches.
Oxford’s research has shown that just four coaching sessions are sufficient to increase the employees’ job satisfaction, personal effectiveness, autonomy and overall impact on company performance, all of which increase the likelihood of top talent sticking around.
Our next study will focus on how our career advancement coaching for ERGs can help companies improve career advancement for under-represented groups and thus diversity in leadership. (If your company has ERGs and would be interested in taking part, please get in touch!)
In the meantime, TroopHR members qualify for a free trial coaching program you can use yourself or share with an early or mid-career team member of your choice. To take up this offer, or find out more about CareerPoint coaching, DM me through the TroopHR community forum, visit us at www.careerpoint.com, or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You might just help someone brimming with ambition in your organization avoid becoming the next Zach… or one of your team leaders becoming the next bemused boss!