How Leaders Can Help Others Find Their Path

Employees and volunteers want professional development, but not necessarily the top job. Clarity and transparency can help them find their way.

For a long time, I was pretty skeptical of those bumper stickers that say, “Not all who wander are lost.” Thanks to a strict Midwestern upbringing, I was certain that not knowing your direction was an error, especially if the direction you weren’t going in was up.

But on this day after Labor Day, when everybody is in buckle-down mode after the summer and before the winter holidays, I think it’s worth noting there’s a good organizational case to be made for understanding that some of your people will want to wander. Not slack off, not leave—explore. Improve their skills, but not necessarily in prescribed directions. Not every staffer craves a corner office; not every volunteer wants to become board chair.

Leaders often intuitively understand this, no doubt, but the career- and volunteer-development processes they create don’t always reflect that understanding. That issue was top-of-mind for speakers at the recent MIT Sloan Management Review symposium, who pointed out that employees—excepting conventional “high performers”—generally don’t know where their growth paths are in an organization. Moreover, those growth paths are often strict and siloed.

It is important to define career development beyond vertical promotion into leadership positions.

Tony Gigliotti, healthcare executive

So how do you do that? Be transparent and create opportunities for autonomy. For instance, Lani Montoya, CHRO at the spirits company Pernod Ricard North America, told the symposium that its system allows all workers to see what positions are available at their skill level. “They can see how teams are structured, and if they’re interested in a role, they can see how it sits within what team,” she said. 

That awareness is good for retention, explained healthcare executive Tony Gigliotti. “It is important to define career development beyond vertical promotion into leadership positions,” he said. “Otherwise, a portion of your productive and reliable employee population might feel that they do not have opportunities for professional growth, and this may lead to their disengagement.”

Think of how this might play out in association volunteering, which often doesn’t promise much more than some vague opportunities to improve leadership skills. Those who want to work on public speaking, or team management, or fundraising, or advocacy, or communications, or any specific skills, may often just have to sign up for a committee and hope for the best. More intentional understanding of needs and opportunities can make for a stronger volunteer corps—and help address a disconnect between the work volunteers find valuable and what associations find valuable

Staffers, especially at smaller associations, may have a clearer sense of what professional development opportunities are available to them; a meetings staffer knows they’ll pick up communications skills by collaborating with the marketing department. But transparency is key. You don’t have to have a global database showing opportunities at everyone’s skill level. It can start with leaders making clear during professional development conversations that they endorse that kind of cross-functional learning. 

Gigliotti notes that the organization monitors leaders’ focus on this. “If a leader is not developing their employees, sharing career resources with them, or encouraging their career growth within the organization, then that leader’s employee engagement scores (particularly in the growth dimension) will suffer,” he said.

Every hard worker is working toward a promotion. But the promotion isn’t always directly up, and they can wander a bit getting there.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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