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When Building Career Paths, Think Milton Bradley, Not Rand McNally - Part 1

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. Milton Bradley, as many of us fondly remember, makes timeless and beloved board games like Life, Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, and of course, Monopoly.

Rand McNally makes maps and (since the GPS revolution) directional guidance systems. Substantially less beloved…though very useful.

These products don’t have much to do with careers, but they do have a lot to do with paths, and in our Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015, we isolated understanding one’s career path as the single strongest driver of three key leader outcomes: Employee Development Focus (active pursuit of opportunities to develop one’s employees), Engagement (leaders’ own involvement in the job), and Retention (leaders’ intent to remain at the organization long-term).

We wanted to know, if career pathing is so essential, under what conditions does it flourish? The more we dug into the data, the more it kept pointing us back to concepts alive and well in games like the ones mentioned above—but nearly absent from a road atlas or online directions website. This doesn’t make someone’s career a “game”—it certainly isn’t to him or her—but it’s even less so a fixed map, where distance and time to reach a pre-determined destination can be projected down to the meter and minute. Because of this, we can learn much more from the way Milton Bradley designs board games with decades of staying power than we can from how Rand McNally plots (and constantly updates) highways, cities, and landmarks.

When Building Career Paths, Think Milton Bradley, Not Rand McNally - Part 1

We saw related themes pop up over and over again in each of the two ways we took the Global Leadership Forecast research further. One we’ll talk about here and the other in a follow-up post. First, for leaders who DO clearly understand their career trajectory, how do organizations “set up the board” to get them there? Our research found five keys to career pathing success for these organizations—in each case, those taking these steps have leaders with significantly higher levels of career path clarity:

  1. Clearly defining the competencies leaders need to be successful.  This one is simple: Without knowing what the best at a game do differently from the rest (and how much is due purely to luck), it’s impossible for leaders to come up with a strategy for getting and applying these skills. Importantly, competencies—as opposed to knowledge or technical skills—extend beyond individual jobs, to avoid a myopic focus on a single “best fit” career track.
  2. Training managers to identify and develop future talent.  Creating and reinforcing career plans for ambitious leaders is a distinct and extremely challenging manager skill, especially when ambiguity is the reality—companies that do this well don’t make leaders figure out the rules on their own; instead, they put programs in place to hone in on this topic so that managers know how to keep leaders moving and to spot and take advantage when new paths unexpectedly open up.
  3. Having deeply rooted coaching and mentoring networks in place.  One’s own manager of course, but also other internal and external mentors who have “played the game” and who can objectively advise on options for what’s next—especially what to do when rolls of the dice don’t go a leader’s way or a move leads to a disappointing dead-end.
  4. Developing managers to lead across generations.  Awareness of a range of possible paths that may be ahead of you—NOT a single route from point A to point B as on a map—is especially craved by Millennial leaders, and managers need the know-how to tap into these motivators, as well as those of other generational groups, and to flex their coaching styles accordingly.
  5. Deploying a broad range of developmental assignments.  Special projects and rotational assignments provide concrete yet temporary opportunities for career exploration—designed well, these “detours” are almost always win-win; leaders that are promising can move on—perhaps even using a newly discovered shortcut. For those that aren’t, they can easily take a couple of steps back and try something else.

These five talent practices differentiate organizations leading the way with high-caliber career pathing for their leaders, from those falling behind and absorbing the dangerous consequences on leader engagement, retention, and passion for development. Each practice also has a clear “Now What” implication for other companies facing similar challenges, as outlined above.

This is an important part of the story, but we wanted to dive further into the flip-side of organizations whose leaders are excelling in this area—the many, very vocal, leaders who are struggling with career clarity. Next week, I’ll be following up with Part 2, about the second way we’re extending the career pathing research from our Global Leadership Forecast. We’ll share, in leaders’ own words, what they feel their organizations need to start doing to provide more useful career guidance—and how their career path “wish list” creates natural (yet avoidable) tension with what their organizations are able and willing to offer, putting the board game/roadmap distinction in better focus.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is the chief scientist and director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).

Click here for the full finding, including additional drivers.

Read Part 2 of the series, When Building Career Paths, Think Milton Bradley, Not Rand McNally.

Posted: 04 Feb, 2015,
Talk to an Expert: When Building Career Paths, Think Milton Bradley, Not Rand McNally - Part 1
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