Keeping Current on Careers: A Response to Leading Edge’s Employee Engagement Report

feedbackBy Linda Rich

Kol hakavod to Leading Edge for its survey and report on employee engagement in the Jewish nonprofit world. The effort advances the conversation on attracting, retaining, and developing talent in the sector, and addresses the critical role of workplace culture.

While the six key findings are sound overall, the recommendations around career advancement merit rethinking. The authors write, “… we need to do a better job of defining clear career paths for rising talent.” In the name of supporting employee advancement, they advocate clear career paths and defined opportunities. Further, they contend that the large number of distinct job titles in the sector “makes it difficult to navigate career opportunities.”

I disagree with these conclusions.

First, careers today are much less predictable than they once were, so clear career paths are neither appropriate nor motivating. While these may still work for specialists in large organizations, elsewhere they only serve to support the status quo and discourage flexibility. Mapping the territory enshrines the map. And where some see confusion in the lack of consistent titles across the sector, others see creativity, and are motivated by the opportunity to sculpt and personalize their own future roles.

Second, recommending clear career paths places the onus on the organization, again harkening back to an earlier age. Today, individuals are responsible for their own careers, actively planning their next moves as they pursue their own individualized paths. While organizations should help staffers grow their capabilities and navigate the terrain, employees must be the primary owners of their own careers. A career is indeed a journey, but not one that follows a clear path laid out by someone else.

Korn Ferry, the consultant for this work, elsewhere identifies the key features of today’s work environment that impact engagement, and includes among these “individualism” and a growing freedom of choice. In their own previous report (Cultivating the Next Generation of Leaders for Jewish Nonprofits, 2014) Leading Edge notes that, “Many emerging leaders are quite driven and willing to take on challenging roles, but not in organizations with rigid cultures that lack collaboration, innovation, and autonomy.” The answer is creative, individualized career paths, not ones that are clearly mapped.

Instead of clear career paths and proliferating titles, we need to focus on continually growing individual contribution, and making employee development a priority. We need to grow managers’ ability to coach their people one-on-one, and foster cultures that encourage them to do so. Retaining talent is also an individual process. It’s about tapping someone on the shoulder, letting them know they’re valued, asking what it will take to keep them, and responding in an individual way.

Calling for clear career paths and fewer titles amounts to being seduced into trusting structural approaches that have outlived their usefulness. Instead of nostalgia, we need solutions that are based on an understanding that today’s careers are messy, organic, evolving and individual. We need to help employees understand today’s work environment and find their own paths. Yes this is complex and time consuming, but it’s the only strategy with the potential to succeed.

Linda Rich (linda@lindarich.com) is an organizational consultant and executive coach focused on the Jewish nonprofit sector.