If career progression is no longer headed in a straight line, neither should our learning and development. In order to grow robust and enthusiastic talent, we need to weave learning in at a cultural level and normalise the sideways career.
If you asked HR and leaders to name their top three concerns of 2022, they’d probably say something like: we’re worried about our best employees quitting; we don’t know how to make our hybrid experiences as engaging as in-person interactions; and we’re worried we don’t have the right skills in the business to excel in the future.
These are all valid concerns, but people often skip over a crucial factor that has the potential to remedy all three issues: embedding learning and development (L&D) into a company’s culture.
The groundswell of panic about the skills squeeze has led to greater investments in learning and development (L&D) programs. That’s great, especially considering Deloitte and DeakinCo’s finding that every $1 invested in L&D per employee delivers a $4.70 return in revenue.
But a company’s L&D approach shouldn’t start and end with siloed webinars or one-off courses. It needs to encompass the everyday aspects of people’s work.
“It’s about asking, ‘How do we create a culture of everyday, rather than ad-hoc, development?’ And being specific about the opportunities for learning,” says Sarah Ellis, author and co-founder of development company Amazing If. “For example, how do we create everyday development on feedback, on learning from mistakes, on repeating our successes?
“If you say to someone, ‘Have you spent any time learning this month?’ they will often say ‘no’ because traditional ladder-like approach of learning equals going on a training course. Instead, we need a new mindset and a much broader definition of what learning looks and feels like,” says Ellis, who has previously held leadership roles with Barclays and Sainsbury’s.
Haven’t got time to read the whole article? Skip to the end of the article for a quick video sharing some of Ellis’s top tips for embedding learning into your culture.
Embracing a squiggly career
While you might still pepper one-day workshops into your learning approach, if you want to use development as an opportunity to grow and retain your people, and safeguard your business, you need to think bigger.
Not only does this create a more compelling and stimulating environment for people to work in, it also helps business leaders to develop cross-functional employees who can task-hop with ease, adding value to different parts of the business.
“Reid Hoffman, one of the co-founders of LinkedIn, talks about the importance and impact of people who have an ‘infinite learning loop’. These are the people who are always a work in progress and open to developing in different directions.
“When I started in my career, I thought success equaled learning to do a specific job. For me, that meant being a good marketer, and climbing up the ladder as far and as fast as I could. However, that mindset limits us and doesn’t reflect the change and uncertainty of the environments we’re all working in. We used to go to work to learn to do a job, but now learning is the job.”
A ladder isn’t a helpful frame of reference for our careers anymore; it doesn’t reflect our experiences or our aspirations. Instead, organisations need to embrace what Ellis and her Amazing If co-founder Helen Tupper call ‘squiggly careers’.
“A squiggly career is one where you never stop learning. Your squiggle is unique to you. We develop in different ways and directions.”
Ellis and Tupper are so passionate about ‘squiggles’ being the future of professional development that they’ve penned a book about it, ‘The Squiggly Career’, and created a podcast, with over two million downloads, that dives deeper into the topic.
Read HRM’s case study about how Telstra is shaking up its approach to employee progression pathways.
Get experimental with sideways careers
If employees want to embrace a sideways career (i.e. they want to become expert at something new without having to step into management), they shouldn’t have to look externally.
Businesses need to think about how they can create fresh career opportunities within the business (internal squiggles) to help scratch employees’ three-year itch.
“Around 65-70 per cent of people are reconsidering their career at the moment, but that’s a good thing. People are taking more ownership over their careers,” says Ellis.
“The challenge for organisations is that [many people] think that to do something to develop and progress, they have to leave the organisation. That isn’t true in the majority of cases.”
People often want to broaden their influence, work in a new department or diversify their skillset. These are all things they can do in their existing organisation.
“Experiments are a great way for organisations to quickly start supporting employees to squiggle and stay.
“We need to think about what the organisation needs to gain and what employees have got to give. When you can bring the give and gain together, that’s where you land on a win-win solution.” – Sarah Ellis, co-founder, Amazing If.
“We encourage businesses to set up ‘career safaris’ where you give people a ‘holiday’ to work in a different department for a couple of weeks. It’s not about a permanent move. It’s about giving permission and actively encouraging employees to be curious about where their careers could take them within the organisation.”
For example, you might move your marketer into corporate responsibility – which is what happened to Ellis – even though they’ve never worked in that space before.
“Moving between functions stretched my strengths and supported me to develop new skills. I worked for a director who could see that I could transfer my talents from one part of the organisation to another, and actively supported me to upskill.
“We need to think about what the organisation needs to gain and what employees have got to give. When you can bring the give and gain together, that’s where you land on a win-win solution.”
Got an area you’d like to upskill in? AHRI’s suite of professional development options offers something for people at any career stage.
A huge part of embracing a learning culture is helping leaders get better at career development conversations, says Ellis.
“The frequency and quality of career conversations is an important unlocker of agile talent flow across your organisation,” she says.
Career conversations don’t have to take up hours, she adds. They might be 15 minutes every other week exploring something specific, like how to stretch someone’s strengths or mapping out the next move someone wants to make in their career – be that upwards or sideways.
Ellis says it’s important that HR, leaders and managers are giving people permission to explore opportunities.
“People don’t know what they don’t know. There is often fear associated with talking to someone senior about different career options, as employees worry that this will impact their opportunities or progression in the short term.
“Managers can also get territorial about their talent, but they should be asking: ‘What other areas of our business are you interested in exploring? And what are the strengths that you would like to use more frequently? And how can we find opportunities or projects for you to get involved in that?’ You’re nicely nudging your team to broaden their horizons.”
“We used to go to work to learn to do a job, but now learning is the job.” – Sarah Ellis, co-founder, Amazing If.
Not only do leaders need to encourage taking sideways steps, they also need to openly discuss the importance of weaving learning into people’s weeks.
“It’s often the first thing to get scratched out of the diary,” says Ellis.
“Professional development is something people put in their diary for a Friday, but the chances of that good intention becoming a reality is low. People consistently de-prioritise their own development. Instead, my questions are: ‘How could you start your week with some learning?’ and, even better, ‘What would ten minutes spent learning everyday look like for you?’”
Building a learning culture
If you want to shake up the way you approach learning in your organisation, you first need to collect and publicise people’s skills. This needn’t be a laborious task, says Ellis.
“Sometimes you can over-design these things. It’s much better to just get started. We often default to complicated technology as the answer, but many organisations can’t afford that technology. I have seen this work well in an Excel spreadsheet.”
You just need a centralised place where people can record their talents.
“If that was me, I’d be writing: ‘I love starting stuff from scratch. I love the opportunity to develop new ideas. I’m really good at building long-term strategic relationships.'”
When you’re starting a new project in the future and you need someone to ideate, someone to polish and someone to get external stakeholders excited about the idea, you can refer to this database and build a solid team to execute.
“You could also do this with a series of videos where people introduce themselves, outline what they do and then share their three main talents. These videos can also serve as a function for giving people more information if they want to do a career safari. You could say, ‘I’m the Head of Marketing and this is what an average day looks like for me…’
“Also, as the L&D or HR function, your job isn’t to solve this for everyone. Your job is to create and champion career experiments, but this has to have shared ownership. HR needs to involve, not solve.”