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A majority of candidates surveyed are looking for roles that offer career development – but how can smaller organsiations offer career pathways?

Previously I’ve spoken about
development plans and how to keep those simple so they actually get used. But what about career paths for people in smaller businesses? And how can you enable a career path for your people when you have less than 100 employees? 

The reason it’s important to look at career paths, no matter the size of your business, is that it’s a difficult candidate market right now. A lot of people are really struggling with how to attract and retain great people. 

There’s a lot of research around learning and the importance of people developing and having career paths. One of the most recent is from the Hayes Salary Guide 2022-2023 for Australia, which reports that when considering a new role, 57% of candidates are looking for training, and about the same (52%) are looking for ongoing learning and development.

“57% of candidates are looking for training, and about the same (52%) are looking for ongoing learning and development.’

If you want to stand out as an employer and attract and retain great people, it makes sense to go beyond just having a development plan and look at the career pathways available in your organisation. 

There are two components to this. One is around the process – how you can put career pathways into place. The other is the business role of career pathways in your organisation – how you can assist your people to increase their competencies.

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The Process

To set up career pathways in your business, the first question is, in your business, do you have a lot of similar roles? Or do you have a lot of different roles? For example, let’s say that you’re a bookkeeping firm. You might have a lot of similar roles, such as a team of bookkeepers and a team of accountants. Then you may also have some individual office roles like marketing and sales, etc. 

‘Do you have a lot of similar roles? Or do you have a lot of different roles?’

Or you could be a business that has lots of different roles. If you’re a media agency, you may have maybe one or two people in the same role. But otherwise, you’re all doing different things within that media cycle for your customers. 

Similar roles

If you’ve got lots of similar roles, in some ways, this is easier, because you can go back to the position descriptions and say, what are the competencies required in these roles? Then you step those out. 

Mapping competencies

For example, let’s say you have a lot of IT support roles. You might take a look at the job description and identify different competencies. One of those might be the ability to maintain relationships with customers. Next you grade that competency across, developing, proficient and expert, for example: 

  • Developing – still learning how to maintain relationships 
  • Proficient – starting to have ongoing contact with the same customers
  • Expert – deepening those relationships.

Grade that competency across, developing, proficient and expert’

You determine the competencies, and then identify a couple of steps in each of them. It doesn’t need to be ‘developing’, ‘proficient’ and ‘expert’, but you want some differentiation between just starting out and being really good at each competency. 

It’s also worth considering pay rates and how they can increase along with those role steps. For example, if I go from beginning to develop a competency through to being quite expert at it, this might have a financial advantage to me as well.

Competency discussions

The key with this kind of process is to provide people with opportunities to discuss where they think they sit on those competency scales, and to gain agreement from their manager. If they’re not sitting where they should be, or where you want them to be, to grow their career, you can have an honest discussion to find opportunities for them to improve their competency in the future. 

Keep in mind however that you need to have pathways in place. It’s a surefire way to demotivate someone if you tell them they’re only at level one, but there’s no opportunity to stretch and improve to get to level three. You’ve got to give them the ability to improve. 

Career path

The aim is to reframe this competency-based system into a career path. If I’m going from level one to level three, within my role as an IT Support Officer, what happens when I get to level three? Perhaps I will earn another title. Even if I’m generally doing the same job, I’ve been recognised for taking my next career-path step. After that, I may specialise, for example, I may become a developer. 

The process aims to to map out these steps. It can take a bit of work, so usually it’s done if you have lots of similar roles in a larger organisation. 

Different roles 

But what happens if you don’t have a lot of people in similar roles, you’ve just got a lot of different roles in the organisation? This is where it becomes much more individual. It’s about identifying, firstly, who would benefit from having longer-term career paths, and who wants a career path.

Sometimes those things aren’t the same. Sometimes we think that we should give someone a career path because that person is so valuable to us. But when we speak to that person, they say ‘I’ve got no idea what I want to do with my career.’ 

You need to ask: 

  • Who would like a career path?
  • Who is really valuable to the organisation that you want to be able to develop? 

I have included a long-term career path template in my book, Great People Great Business (page 144). But you can also use your favourite search engine to look up ‘career plan document’ or ‘long-term career path plan’ and you’ll find something similar. 

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Business role

What about the business role in all of this? Firstly, you need to identify the people you want to invest in having a career path, long term

One way to do that is to look at your staff and say, ‘Okay, who do we think has the highest performance and the highest potential?’. Then you have a direct conversation with them to let them know they’re really valuable to the organisation. Tell them, ‘We want to work with you on the best ways to retain you within the business and build your career.’ 

If that person says, ‘Fantastic, here’s my career goal for the next three to five years,’ then that can make things simpler as youu can say, ‘Okay, that’s your career goal for the next three to five years, what do we need to do over the next 12 months?’ Then you break that down into quarterly development goals. 

If that person says, ‘I’ve got no idea what I want with my career plan’, then there’s more of a role there for the business owner or leader to step in. One way to help is to use assessments

A strengths profile can help people to understand where they have qualities or strengths that are quite energising to them. Perhaps they don’t use these strengths as often as they could. You can use this information to say, ‘Okay, where can you use your strengths within your role?’ 

Different options

The other thing from a business perspective is to consider different options that you can offer the person. For example:

  • Can they do some kind of job rotation within the business? 
  • Can they cover someone else’s role, for example when they’re on annual leave? 
  • Can they take a secondment outside of your organisation, perhaps with a key customer or a stakeholder, perhaps a client outside your industry? 
  • Can you enable people to take unpaid leave from the business to work elsewhere? That might be scary to some people, but it can be a way to keep people in the longer term by allowing them to gain a short term skills injection elsewhere. 

Position descriptions

Position descriptions are really important. One of the reasons for that is that if somebody identifies a role in the business that they’re interested in, you can bring out that position description and say, ‘Okay, here are the competencies that are required for that role. Where do you think you sit at the moment?’ And then you can work with them on developing the competencies they need. 


Also, from a business perspective, it’s important to consider promotions, even when the timing is not perfect. 

For example, if somebody leaves and there’s another person waiting in the wings, sometimes you can think they’re just not ready yet. Maybe you decide they need another one or two years to build their capacity, so you don’t promote them to the role. 

The problem is, you might lose them in that one or two years. Instead, can you redesign the role so that they can be promoted into it now? Then perhaps you can develop them over that one to two year period to increase their competencies.

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