Employee Ownership in Career Development: The Role of the Organization

By Steve Knight

The following comments were recently overheard inside some large organizations:


“How can you hold managers accountable for daily production goals if we need to take time out to talk to employees about their about careers?”

-VP for Production at large energy company speaking to the Division President about plans for talent review meetings with employees


“What really shocked me is that she is leaving for a job at a non- profit focused on third world hunger. I have managed her for five years and had absolutely no idea that she was passionate about this issue.”

-HR manager for a global Fortune 500 company regarding the unexpected resignation of a longtime employee


“It is easier to get career coaching from a headhunter than to talk to my boss or to attempt to find out on my own what opportunities might be available internally.”

- Young high potential software engineer commenting during a focus group


These three brief examples highlight the all- too- typical disconnect between employees, managers and their organization’s goals when it comes to career development. The hopeful aspect of these anecdotes is that each one occurred in the context of serious organizational efforts to improve career development practice. But the dilemma is real.


How should company leaders, managers and employees be thinking about career development?


Since the shocks of corporate re-engineering and leveraged buyouts in the late 1980s, the watchword to employees has been take ownership of your own future. Instead of efforts to build bench strength, which had characterized talent development efforts since the 1950s, most organizations shortened talent planning time horizons and reduced learning and development investment, resorting instead to hiring talent on a just-in-time basis.


Today, even though there is a massive pool of unemployed labor available, some organizations are redoubling their efforts to support internal employee development instead of looking outside. In these organizations the “take ownership of your own future” message still applies, but with the goal of insuring that an employee’s future is with one’s current employer – not in the external job market. For these companies the answer to the question: “should we build or buy talent?” has shifted to an emphasis on building talent internally. Why? The answers from HR professionals and senior mangers boil down to a few recurring themes:


Key reasons organizations are refocusing on employee career development






How are organizations providing the foundation for effective employee ownership of development? Leading companies combine a message of employee career ownership with the resources to make it possible for employees to take initiative and to insure alignment with organizational business goals. The linchpin is making career conversations more effective. Here is a sample of simple but effective efforts undertaken by three very different organizations. 

1. Career Training and Tools for Employees.
Scripps is a major healthcare organization in the San Diego area with over 13,000 employees, and numerous awards for clinical and workplace excellence including the Fortune 100 Best Places to Work, Working Mother 100 Best Employer and others. Scripps determined that a key barrier to effective employee ownership of career development was the lack of support for employees as they attempted to take advantage of the tools offered by the organization and initiate career conversations with managers. As part of the solution, Scripps now offers a full- day training session to help employees take constructive actions to build their careers at Scripps. 

2. Career Training and Tools for Managers.
Cobalt is a mid-sized technology company in the Seattle area that has recently been acquired by ADP. Cobalt’s executive leaders saw that the intense pressures of short-term project work was undermining their ability to support talent development crucial to the company’s future. Cobalt created a modularized training offering for managers to educate them on their crucial role in career development and to give them intensive practice and feedback on how to handle career discussions with employees. 

3. Career Coaching
Anheuser Busch Employee Credit Union is a financial services organization with approximately 400 employees. The executive team decided to beef up support for career development after data on employee engagement surveys identified the issue as a top priority. Rather than attempt broad-based training or technology solutions, the organization decided to provide intensive training to a cadre of career coaches that would be available to engage with employees on career planning on an individual level as the need arose.

Common elements across all these efforts include:

To make employee ownership for career development more than an empty phrase, employees and managers need to be given the concepts, tools and practice they need to make it work. The payoffs in employee focus, motivation and retention may give an organization a major competitive edge.


Steve KnightSteve N. Knight, is Executive Vice President of Integral Talent Systems, Inc. in Palo Alto, Ca.Steve has 17 years of sales and consulting experience in the field of strategic organizational change. Prior to joining ITS, Steve served as a Vice President at Achieve Global, leading the western region's sales and consulting organization. During his eight-year tenure there, Steve also held Sales Manager and Senior Account Executive positions. Before joining Achieve Global, he was a Senior Consultant at Psychological Associates, Inc., and a manufacturing Operations Manager at AT&T. Steve's areas of expertise include employee retention strategies, process improvement, management development, and sales training. Steve can be reached at: sknight@itsinc.net.

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Kathy Maloney   on Thursday 12/02/2010 at 09:25 AM

As an inside career/talent management consultant, I agree wholeheartedly with your points about the leader role in empowering employees to manage their careers in-house. Unfortunately, the recent economic downturn and upper management changes have led us to de-emphasize the value of providing support to employees and leaders to build skills in this area.

Michelle Borst Polino   on Friday 10/03/2014 at 09:16 AM

I agree with Kathy - the question "should we build or buy talent" is unequivocally answered - employers "buy" talent, which is a shame because many employees are looking for a chance for career development and are just looking for the opportunity. I recently attended a healthcare recruiter conference where the common theme was finding qualified candidates - if they are looking for "happiness", maybe they should look in their own backyards and review their current employee pools and ask, "who stands out", "who is looking for an opportunity", "who could be mentored/trained into the position we're looking to fill".

Susan Whitcomb   on Saturday 10/04/2014 at 03:41 PM

Steve, thanks for an insightful article. Kathy and Michelle, I agree--economic pressures have impacted managers development employees, and "buying" vs. "building" talent may seem easier but isn't economical (or morale-building) in the long-run. The other factor that comes to mind is that managers are so stressed (doing more than they used to since the economic downturn) that they fear developing then "losing" a key player (the Golden Goose syndrome).

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