All the latest research suggests that a career development program is the most effective way to invest in your employees (and in turn, grow your business!), but how exactly do you go about it? Today, we’re sharing a handy step-by-step guide to get you started.
Our 10-step guide will help you create the kind of people-centric career development program that inspires your people to develop their skills and ideally, progress to a new role within your teams. Not only will it encourage career growth among your employees, but, if designed well, it can transform culture, engagement and performance at your company.
Before we get into the step-by-step guide, let’s answer some frequently-asked questions about career development programs.
What is a Career Development Program?
A career development program is a series of initiatives that help employees build skills, identify growth opportunities, and visualise a future with their company. Initiatives might include employee-centric career pathways, coaching and mentoring programs, learning and networking events, or employee education and training stipends.
Why is Career Development Important?
Career development can increase engagement, lower retention and make companies more resilient to the evolving talent crisis. It contributes to a thriving company culture, enhances DEI and addresses some key challenges associated with hybrid and remote work. It’s also more cost-effective than hiring and reskilling new employees.
We’re such huge fans of employee career development, we’ve written a detailed guide to its benefits, based on the latest data from employee research.
What does a Great Employee Career Development Program Look Like?
In order to have a positive impact on performance, engagement and retention, career development programs need to be people-centric. By this, we mean that the individual’s hopes for their career should be heard and respected, and that the process of creating their career development plan should be collaborative. Career development programs in which the employee is issued a fixed career path by a manager and sent on a training course without prior consultation do nothing to engage or inspire.
In an effective career development program, employees feel free to express their true hopes about their career, design their desired career pathway in collaboration with a manager or leader, and receive sufficient support for their next steps.
A great career development program needs to revolve around 3 key questions:
- Where does the employee want to go?
- How will they get there?
- What are the next steps?
By constantly referring to these 3 questions, you can ensure that your employees will engage with your career development program and really see the value in it. You can help employees own their career development, so they can move forward on their own initiative. And you’ll ensure that plans will be actioned so that your program will translate to real, measurable change.
What about Employees who Want a Major Career Change?
When we talk about the importance of career development, we’re sometimes asked this question. Through a career development program, leaders often discover that some team members hope to change industries or leave the workforce entirely.
This isn’t always bad news. Facilitating non-linear career pathways may give leaders the opportunity to hold onto these talented key players, for example, when a Sales Team Lead hopes to move into software development.
And when employees dream of a major career change (for example, a HR Manager hopes to become a teacher) or plan to leave the workforce entirely, all hope is not lost.
Career development programs can help you get the most from future leavers while they’re still on your team.
By showing that you support your employee’s wider plans, and are willing to help them develop skills to help them transition to a new industry (for your HR Manager who hopes to become a teacher, this might include communication, teamwork, public speaking, coaching or project management), you can fuel their engagement and optimise their contribution to the company while they’re still a part of your team.
How to Build an Effective Employee Career Development Program: A Step-by-Step Guide for Leaders
1. Review and Refresh Company Goals
Career development programs can only be successful if a strong business strategy and clear company goals are already in place, so this should be your first port of call.
2. Establish Program Goals
This is an opportunity to define what you hope to achieve with your career development program. Are you looking to increase retention? Boost engagement? Create a culture of continuous improvement? All this and more?
We recommend setting one OKR goal for getting the program off the ground (e.g. Launch Career Development Program), and another detailing what you hope to achieve in the program’s first quarter or year. Or you may prefer to fold your program goals into existing OKRs (e.g. Improve Internal Employee Engagement).
The key here is to define some desired outcomes for the program and give your team fixed deadlines for when these targets should be met. Learn more about goal-setting best practices.
3. Survey your People
We recommend getting your people involved in the employee career development program as early as possible - after all, it’s going to be designed for them!
Start by finding out what your employees would like to see in the program. You could begin with a series of dedicated 1:1 meetings between employees, managers and leaders to generate ideas - you can also work off our list of sample ideas. Next, run a survey in which employees are asked to rate the initiatives that are being considered. Don’t forget to include an open-ended question prompting additional ideas and suggestions!
Doing this digitally using a tool like Frankli helps remove extrovert bias and anchors your decisions in data.
4. Set a Budget
The cost of running a career development program can be anything from $0 to $100 million+ - Google, Amazon and JPMorgan are just 3 of the companies spending 9+ figures on developing their people.
The good news is that, when it comes to employee development, meaningful change doesn’t have to cost the earth. Dedicated 1:1 meetings focused on career development, internal coaching and mentoring programs, and employee-led career pathways cost next to nothing, although we do recommend running them through a digital platform like Frankli to increase efficiency, maximise their value and remove biases.
Whatever your budget, it’s important to set it at this stage of the process, before you make a formal plan for your program.
5. Choose your Initiatives
Once you’ve defined some goals for the program, you can start to build your shortlist of initiatives. Our list of sample ideas provides a great starting point for this, but be sure to consider what your employees are most interested in.
Establish a couple of top-priority initiatives, and research the resources required, making sure to factor in the cost of employee time as well as any software, education fees or external consultants that might enhance the ROI of the program.
It’s fine to start with one initiative and build on it later - do whatever works best for your teams and your bandwidth. Just remember that lack of career opportunities is costing companies $100,000s each year (1, 2) so this is something that’s really worth prioritising.
6. Create a Clear Action Plan
Now it’s time to make a formal plan with clear, actionable steps.
It can help to ask yourself the following questions:
- What needs to be done in order to get the program off the ground?
- What’s the first initiative or initiatives you’ll launch?
- Which team members will lead these initiatives?
- How are you going to communicate the program to your people?
Be sure to set deadlines for each step and strive for clarity on expectations. OKR goal-setting can be really useful for this.
7. Communicate the Program to your People
Career development programs require employee buy-in, and in order to secure it, you need to communicate the value of the program to your people.
An All Hands meeting provides a great opportunity for leaders to introduce the program and explain how it can benefit employees. Some teams will prefer to send a company-wide email or post on an internal messaging app.
The key is to highlight the potential benefits for employees. The program was (hopefully!) designed for them, based on their feedback, so it’s really about helping them grow, explore new areas of expertise and gain ownership over their future at the company.
It’s also important that managers are clear on the value of the program, and feel supported to promote it across their team through 1:1 meetings.
One last tip on this - remember to add details of the program in any employee handbooks or information provided to new joiners.
8. Involve your Managers
Once the program has been launched, managers should begin folding it into regular career development conversations with their people.
They should be asking:
- Which initiatives are you interested in?
- What help do you need from me in order to get involved with the program?
- Do you feel you have enough time to participate in the program?
- (If already participating) How is the program going?
- What benefits has the program offered so far?
- Is the program having a positive impact on your performance/confidence/job satisfaction etc.?
- Has the program helped you get a clearer picture of your future career?
- Are there any downsides or issues I should be aware of?
9. Track your Results
Once the program is in full flight, you can start to measure the progress and track the results. Managers can relay feedback from their 1:1 meeting conversations, but it’s a good idea to invite employees to provide feedback too - a digital tool like Frankli makes it easy to store and analyse this valuable information.
Next, establish metrics for the goals you established in Step 2 - eNPS surveys to measure engagement, attrition rate for retention etc. Check in on the program’s progress regularly - monthly or quarterly at the very least - so you're aware of what’s working, and crucially, what’s not.
10. Revisit and Revise
No employee program is perfect. Most companies tweak them as they go.
Set a deadline for revisiting the program, when you'll make changes based on employee feedback and data on key business outcomes. You’ll probably find that version 2 of the program is even more effective.
(Optional) Identify Skill Gaps
If one of the goals of your employee development program is to fill current or future roles, it’s worth conducting a skills gap analysis early on in the process, around Step 2 or Step 3.
This will help you identify employees who are good candidates for filling these important roles, but may need extra support to get there in the desired timeline.
Employee Career Development Program Examples
Here, we’re sharing a list of initiatives that tend to get included in career development programs, but don’t be afraid to get creative and design some that are specific to your teams!
1. Digital career pathways
2. Internal coaching and mentoring program
3. External coaching or mentoring programs
4. Employee learning or knowledge-sharing events
5. Employee networking opportunities
6. Employee learning stipends
7. Funded training for employees
8. Cultural classes
9. Language lessons
10. Leadership development program
11. Women leadership program
12. Minority leadership program
13. Allyship training
14. Scholarships or tuition reimbursement