Why Companies Should Help Every Employee Chart a Career Path

Magazine Spring 2023 Issue Research Features

Providing career development to all employees requires a commitment to clarifying pathways for growth and giving everyone opportunities to build new skills.

George Westerman and Abbie Lundberg

Reading Time: 19 min

Michael Austin/theispot.com

Ask an HR leader whether their company is good at career development, and they will likely say that it is — and then they’ll talk about the programs they’ve designed for high-potential employees.

Ask them how well the company supports the rest of the workforce, and their answer will likely change. Some will say that they expect managers to be responsible for developing their people. Others will say that employees are empowered to “own” their own career development. The more transparent leaders might add that their approach works for some employees but not for most.

Those approaches might sound good but often don’t live up to their promise. This is a problem for companies, especially when it’s difficult to find and retain skilled employees. Leaders must do much more to help employees see a future with the company and a path to advance toward that future.

Fortunately, a small but growing number of companies are finding ways to improve career development for all of their interested employees. Doing this at scale does not require the same level of investment that the company provides to its high-potential future leaders. It does, however, require the use of modern tools and a coherent approach that helps employees see a path forward, learn and practice the competencies they need, and receive solid feedback and coaching along the way.

In this article, we’ll share insights from a survey of more than 1,000 workers and interviews with talent and learning leaders at more than 25 organizations who are figuring this out.

Let’s Stop Kidding Ourselves

It’s convenient for senior executives who make decisions on HR policies and invest to delegate employee development to line managers or to spin a lack of organizational support as empowering employees to own their professional growth paths. Yet neither course is a very effective solution to a problem that requires a more systematic approach.


1. K. Parker and JM Horowitz, “Majority of Workers Who Quit a Job in 2021 Cite Low Pay, No Opportunities for Advancement, Feeling Disrespected,” Pew Research Center, March 9, 2022, www.pewresearch.org.

2. A. De Smet, B. Dowling, B. Hancock, et al., “The Great Attrition Is Making Hiring Harder. Are You Searching the Right Talent Pools?” McKinsey Quarterly, July 13, 2022, www.mckinsey.com.

3. Willis Towers Watson’s 2016 Global Talent Management and Rewards Study surveyed more than 2,000 companies globally, including 441 from the US

4. Dervin is an editorial adviser to MIT Sloan Management Review.

5. WR Kerr, E. Billaud, and MF Hjortshoej, “Unilever’s Response to the Future of Work,” Harvard Business School case no. 820-104 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, April 2020).

6. D. Kiron, J. Schwartz, R. Jones, et al., “Create a Crisis Growth Plan: Start With Opportunity Marketplaces,” Sloan Management Review, June 23, 2020, https://sloanreview.mit.edu; and M. Schrage, J. Schwartz, D. Kiron, et al., “Opportunity Marketplaces: Aligning Workforce Investment and Value Creation in the Digital Enterprise,” MIT Sloan Management Review, April 28, 2020, https://sloanreview.mit .edu.

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