Individual career management and Organisational support


If we identify a career as the property of the individual, then clearly the responsibility for managing this rests on the individual, who should identify career goals, adopt strateg­ies to support them and devise plans to achieve the goal.

Many research studies highlight the role of luck in relation to career decisions (see Bright et al. 2005 for a useful summary), and Pringle and Gold (1989) found a lack of career planning in their sample of 50 ‘achieving’ men and women managers. Only around a quarter of people had plans for the future and many identified luck, oppor­tunity or being in the right place at the right time as the reason they had achieved promotions. However, Dickmann and his colleagues (2006) note that individuals are increasingly focused on developing their ‘career capital’ as they seek to enhance their position in the jobs market, but this does not mean that they necessarily involved themselves in planning and setting career goals.

We suggest that planning is an essential ingredient of individual career management even if only to provide a framework for decisions about the opportunities that arise through identifying priorities. We also argue that the more individuals attempt to manage their career, the more likely it is that opportunities will arise that they can use constructively. Similarly the more proactive an individual is in identifying and meeting his or her career-related development needs the better he or she will able to grasp oppor­tunities when they arise.

Identifying a short-or medium-term career goal is probably the best way to start. A career goal will be specific to the individual, such as to become an internal senior organ­isational consultant by the age of 35. The range of strategies that a person may adopt in pursuit of his or her goal can be described in more general terms. The list below describes the type of strategies, identified from a review of the literature by Gould and Penley (1984), and they relate to career improvement/promotion within the organisation.

  • Creating opportunities. This involves building the appropriate skills and experiences that are needed for a career in the organisation. Developing those skills that are seen as critical to the individual’s supervisor and department are most useful, as is exercising leadership in an area where none exists at present.
  • Extended work involvement. This necessitates working long hours, both at the work­place and at home, and may also involve a preoccupation with work issues at all times.
  • Self-nomination/self-presentation. Individuals who pursues this strategy will com­municate the desire for increased responsibility to their managers. They will also make known their successes, and build an image of themselves as someone who achieves things.
  • Seeking career guidance. This involves seeking out a more experienced person, either within the organisation or without, and looking for guidance or sponsorship. The use of mentor relationships would come into this category.
  • Networking involves developing contacts both inside and outside the organisation to gain information and support.
  • Interpersonal attraction. This strategy builds the relationship with one’s immediate manager on the basis that he or she will have an impact on career progression. One form of this is ‘opinion conformity’; that is, sharing the key opinions of the indi­vidual’s manager, perhaps with minor deviations. Another is expressed as ‘other enhancement’, which may involve sharing personal information with one’s manager and becoming interested in similar pursuits.

More recently Siebert and colleagues (2001) suggest that career success hinges on who you know as well as what you know, and often on the relationship between the two. In their research they found that it was better to have a large network of contacts and weaker ties, rather than a smaller network with stronger ties, which generally disadvantages women.

There is evidence however, that individuals are generally not good at career self­management, as demonstrated by Sturges et al. (2002). Nevertheless, they did find that informal career support, perhaps in terms of mentoring, did reinforce self-management activities. This supports the partnership approach to career development. From a slightly different angle, Yarnall (1998) found that career education for employees helps them extract support from the business. In the 2003 career management survey by CIPD (2003, the most recent at the time of writing) 95 per cent of respondents felt that indi­viduals will be expected to take responsibility for their own careers in the future and 90 per cent felt that they must be offered organisational support to do this. Arguing that the public sector seems to depend more on individuals to drive their own careers Hirsh (2003) suggests that this may be related to the lower effectiveness of the public sector.

1.1. Inter-organisational and post-organisational careers and career change

So far we have tended to focus on career moves within the organisation, but many people desire the next career move to be to another organisation or into a new type of career. The concept of a personal career agent has emerged for top-flight executives and for further details on this see Case 19.1 on this book’s companion website at www. However, most us of need to rely on our own skills and effort to make a career move. Arthur and Rousseau (1996b) suggest that individuals need to develop career resilience, which they define as bouncing back from disruptions to one’s career, and Waterman et al. (1994), in an article on the career-resilient work­force, suggest that individuals need to:

  • make themselves knowledgeable about relevant market trends;
  • understand the skills and knowledge needed in their area and anticipate future needs;
  • be aware of their own strengths and weaknesses;
  • have a plan for increasing their performance and employability;
  • respond quickly to changing business needs;
  • move on from their current employer when a win/win relationship is no longer possible.

Career self-management is increasingly the label used to describe the way that indi­viduals need to approach their careers in all contexts, and there is an increasing liter­ature on this. Hesketh (2001) suggests that career goal setting based on self-knowledge and career clarity will lead to more effective career self-management and Chiaburu and others (2006) identify ‘job mobility preparedness’ and ‘developmental feedback-seeking’ as key career self-management behaviours which support the development of career net­works, coping with career challenges and adapting to changes in the organisation and its environment. The same researchers identify that a proactive personality is positively related to career self-management behaviours, and suggest that self-managing individuals are more adept at understanding organisational and environmental changes, and are more likely than those who do not adopt career self-management behaviour to seek out relevant career information and support. Finally, King (2004) defines and identifies three groups of key behaviours. She identifies ‘positioning’ behaviours in which individuals make sure they have the contacts, the skills and the experience to achieve their career goal; ‘influence’ behaviours where individuals make active efforts to influence key gate­keepers who make decisions relating to career progress; and ‘boundary management’ behaviours, which are concerned with balancing the demands of work and non-work.

In particular, moving into a different type of career is very difficult for many of us and so we conclude this section by discussing why this is so difficult and what steps might be taken to improve one’s chances of success. Drummond and Chell (2001) use two case studies to illustrate some of the issues which embed us in our career. They explain, using Becker’s theory of side bets, how other interests influence our choice of career in addi­tion to the work itself, for example the likelihood of high earnings, status, travel and so on. If these desires are fulfilled but we are dissatisfied with our career we may find ourselves trapped. They also show how we use self-justification to defend the careers choices we have made and to stick with them, failure or problems being attributed to external causes. They suggest that decisions made early in life are hard to reverse and that the more we stick with what we have done and the more we rationalise this, the more likely we are to stick with it in the future. Ibarra (2002) also uses case studies to illustrate how individuals try to make the change but fail, because of the way they go about it, and also because of our natural fear of change. There are cases where dramatic changes were attempted and failed, either because they turned out to be the same as before (moving to a new job in a new organisation, but finding the nature of the work just the same) or because they just did not work (as in a new start-up business that could not make sufficient profit). Not only is self-knowledge important, Ibarra argues, but much of this needs to be gained from real experiences. Planning to change and using advisers is insufficient. She suggests that

working identity, as a practice, is necessarily a process of experimenting, testing, and learning about our possible selves. (p. 43)

Her advice is to try out new activities on a small scale before making a major com­mitment to a new career path, for example trying out additional work at the evenings or weekends, or on the basis of temporarily reduced hours, sabbatical or extended holidays, and maybe working on a voluntary basis. She also suggests developing new networks and reference groups in areas where we may be interested to work, as these people will not only provide information and possible opportunities but also a support network when different types of work are begun. Third, she suggests that we to seek out or create triggers and catalysts for change. For example, one may use redundancy as an opportunity to be free to try something different.

1.2. Continuous Professional Development (CPD)

CPD is an umbrella term referring to professional learning and development which is linked to either a licence to practise or professional accreditation, and is relevant whether an individual practises his or her profession within or outside an organisation. Many professions have schemes to ensure appropriate standards for different levels of membership and also to ensure that the professional keeps up to date and continues to develop after accreditation. Examples include architects, surveyors and human resource professionals. In early 1992 CPD became a part of the membership requirements for the CIPD, and was associated with record keeping and the production of evidence. However Floodgate (2006) explains how the focus has changed from the early assessment and policing approach. She suggests that there has been a move from compliance to com­mitment and from enforcement to encouragement in the approach of the CIPD to CPD, suggesting that this approach is no longer about documentation but about reflecting on experiences and building on these insights. This change of approach is reflected, accord­ing to Floodgate, in an approach to upgrading which asks a series of questions that allow individuals to express in their own ways the value gained from their learning and the reasoning behind learning that they plan to undertake.

Interestingly, research by Rothwell and Arnold (2005) involving CIPD branch members found that the drivers for CPD were primarily organisational, that is, dependent on the nature of their job and the perceived benefits to the employer, but following this enhanced employability and career prospects were seen as the most valuable reason for completing CPD. Of least value was the expectation of a reward linked to this. However whilst CPD was valued and the degree of value was associated with degree of CPD activities, valuing CPD did not always lead to CPD actions for the respondents to this survey. In addition the authors argue that just because CPD is carried out, there is no guarantee that any­thing is learned. And Hirsh and Jackson (2004) make the point that CPD may well be carried out by the people who need it least rather than the people who need it most.

There is some evidence that women are more likely to involve themselves in CPD. This was found in the above study and in a study by Rowold and Schilling (2006), who investigated ‘career-related continuous learning’. This is a slightly broader concept than CPD, and defined by them as self-initiated, discretionary, planned, proactive activities carried out for the purpose of career development and being related to improving career options and aspirations. It is interesting that they found that such careeer-related learn­ing was not related to career planning or career exploration activity. This supports the idea that CPD is more about loyalty to the profession, rather than a calculated way to get ahead.


Although career management is primarily the individual’s responsibility, organisations can and should support this. This will be relevant whether careers are offered internally or whether employability is promoted, although the support may be different. Most organisations still see career management as optional rather than essential, its future orientation makes it slip down the business agenda, and there is always a tension between individual and organisational needs (Hirsh 2003). Successful career management is dependent on resolving these differences. CIPD (2003) argues that the factors contribut­ing to effective career management are using career management activities valued by employees; training line managers and HR staff in career management; line managers taking career management seriously; commitment of senior managers; a formal written career management strategy; integration with overall HR and business strategy. Based on the 2003 CIPD study Hirsh notes that the main barriers to career management are practical rather than philosophical and involve lack of time and resources, career management being seen as peripheral and lack of senior management commitment. Organisations can help individuals with:

  • Career exploration – providing tools and help for self-diagnosis and supplying organ­isational information.
  • Career goal setting – providing a clear view of the career opportunities available in the business, making a wider range of opportunities available to meet different career priorities.
  • Career strategies and action planning – providing information and support; what works in this organisation; what’s realistic; when considering working for other organisations may be appropriate.
  • Career feedback – providing an honest appraisal of current performance and career potential. Organisations can make this contribution through the activities discussed below.

Case 19.2 on this book’s companion website at focuses on different ways that one organisation supports career development in the restaurant sector.

2.1. Career strategy

Although a career strategy is critical, less than a half of the organisations responding to the 2003 CIPD careers survey reported that a written career strategy existed, and only one-quarter of respondents had a career strategy that covered all employees. Most organisations concentrate on senior managers and key staff that the organisation wishes to retain. There appeared to be little support for traditionally disadvantaged groups such as part-time workers, those returning after long-term sickness absence or a career break, women returning to work after bearing children and workers over the age of 50.

2.2. Career pathways and grids

A career path is a sequence of job roles or positions, related via work content or abilities required, through which an individual can move. Publicised pathways can help people to identify a realistic career goal within the organisation. Traditional pathways were normally presented as a vertical career ladder, emphasising upward promotion within a function, and focusing on full-time jobs meant that career progress for the majority was halted early on in their careers. This inflexibility tended to stifle cross-functional moves and emphasised progression via management rather than equally through development of technical expertise.

There is now increasing use of alternative approaches, often designed in the form of a grid, with options at each point, so that upwards, lateral, diagonal and even down­wards moves can be made. These grids may also be linked into grids for other parts of the business, thereby facilitating cross-functional moves. Ideally, positions are described in behavioural terms, identifying the skills, knowledge and attitudes required for a posi­tion rather than the qualifications needed or age range anticipated. However, as organ­isations continue to change more and more rapidly even such a matrix may prove to be too rigid and career opportunities may need to be expressed in terms of groups of roles, and be fluid enough to integrate newly developed and unexpected types of roles.

Not only do career routes need to be carefully communicated to employees, they also need to reflect reality, and not just present an ideal picture of desirable career develop­ment. Managers who will be appointing staff need to be fully apprised of the philosophy of career development and the types of move that the organisation wishes to encourage. It is important that the organisation reinforces lateral moves by developing a payment system that rewards the development of skills and not just the organisation level.

2.3. Fast-track programmes

Fast-track programmes have been considered as a way of developing and retaining high performers. However, problems have been found with such accelerated progress. Hall (1999) reports that although individuals on such programmes perform well early on, they tend to experience derailment later in their career. He proposed four reasons for this. First, that moving through the organisation so quickly means that they have never been in one place long enough to develop a network of learning support. Second, that in their rapid progress they will have alienated a lot of people on the way. Third, that they have never been in one position long enough to experience failure and setbacks and learn how to deal with these, and, finally, this means that they have not received sufficient developmental feedback, which is critical to career success. Iles (1997) suggests that to make such careers more sustainable there needs to be greater emphasis on developing empowerment skills and more developmental feedback.

2.4. Career conversations

The lack of opportunity to discuss career options is frustrating for employees, and to dis­cover the nature of helpful career conversations Hirsh and her colleagues (2001) asked individuals to explain positive career conversations in terms of where they took place, who was involved, how they were conducted and the impact that they had. They found that only around one-fifth of the discussions took place with the individual’s line manager and many more had conversations with other managers in the organisation, and some with specialist advisers or HR. Around half the discussions took place informally, out­side the remit of, say, an appraisal, development centre, mentoring, coaching, or any other formal system, and of these 40 per cent were unplanned. It was key that discussions were held with people who were trusted and open, prepared to be frank about the indi­vidual’s skills and potential and who were genuinely interested in the individual. Around three-quarters of these conversations appeared to result in some form of career action. Hirsh and her colleagues note that these findings differ from current ideas of best prac­tice, which are to discuss one’s career with one’s line manager in an appraisal context.

2.5. Managerial support

In spite of the above findings managerial support remains critical, not only in terms of appointing new staff, but also in terms of supporting the career development of their current staff. Direct feedback on current performance and potential is vital, especially in identifying strengths and weaknesses, and what improvement is required. The immediate manager is in a good position to refer the individual to other managers and to introduce them into a network which will support their career moves. In addition the manager is in the ideal position to provide job challenges and experiences within the current job which will equip the incumbent with the skills needed for the desired career move.

Unfortunately, managers often do not see these responsibilites as part of their job and see them as belonging to the HR department, and Hirsh notes that managers often need to be cajoled by HR to play their part. Yarnall (1998) found low levels of support from managers, but also found that employees participating in self-development career initiatives did encourage management support. Managers often feel constrained by their lack of knowledge about other parts of the organisation, and often withdraw from giving accurate feedback about career potential, particularly when they know that what they have to say is not what the individual wishes to hear. CIPD (2003) notes that there appears to be a lack of training for line managers to support them in their career develop­ment role. It also found that the most common career goals explored by line managers concerned short-term promotions and projects within the organisation, at the expense of more complex issues such as lateral moves, secondments, work-life balance and career flexibility. Managers are also sometimes tempted, in their own interests, to hold on to good employees rather than encourage them to develop elsewhere.

2.6. Career counselling

Occasionally immediate managers will be involved in career counselling, drawing out the strengths, weaknesses, values and interests of their staff. In many cases, however, those who seek such counselling would prefer to speak in confidence to someone inde­pendent of their work situation. In these circumstances a member of the HR department may act as counsellor. In more complex cases, or those involving senior members of staff, professionals external to the organisation may be sought. This is also more likely to be the case if the career counselling is offered as part of an outplacement programme resulting from a redundancy.

2.7. Career workshops

Career workshops are usually, but not always, conducted off-site, and offered as a confidential programme to help individuals assess their strengths and weaknesses, values and interests, identify career opportunities, set personal career goals and begin to develop a strategy and action plan. Career goals will not necessarily be restricted to the current employing organisation – and one objective of the workshop is often to broaden career perspectives. Workshops may last 2-3 days, and normally involve individual paper-and-pencil exercises, group discussions, one-to-one discussions and private con­ferences with tutors. For some people these can be quite traumatic events as they involve whole-life exploration, and often buried issues are confronted which have been avoided in the hurly-burly of day-to-day life. The most difficult part for many individuals is keeping the momentum going after the event by continuing the action planning and self­assessment of progress.

2.8. Self-help workbooks

As an alternative to a workshop there are various self-help guides and workbooks which can assist people to work through career issues by presenting a structure and frame­work. Organisations such as Lifeskills provide a range of workbooks appropriate for different stages of career development.

2.9. Career centres

Career centres within organisations can be used as a focal point for the provision of organisational and external career information. The centre may include a library on career choices and exploration, information on organisational career ladders and grids, current opportunities, self-help workbooks and computer packages. Such centres appear to be relatively common in large organisations, yet CIPD (2003) reports that participants do not consider them to be very useful.

2.10. Assessment and development centres

Assessment centres for internal staff have traditionally taken the form of pass/fail assess­ment for a selected group of high-potential managers at a specific level. They were focused on organisational rather than individual needs. Recently changes to some of these centres have moved the focus to the individual, with fewer limitations on who is
allowed to attend. These ‘development centres’ assess the individual’s strengths and weaknesses and provide feedback and development plans so that each can make the most of his or her own potential. The outcome is not pass/fail but action plans for personal and career development.

Whatever career activities are in place in the organisation it is important to ensure that:

  • There is a clear and agreed careers philosophy communicated to all in the organisation.
  • Managers are supported in their career development responsibilities.
  • Career opportunities are communicated to staff.
  • There is an appropriate balance between open and closed internal recruitment.
  • The reasons for the balance are explained.
  • There are rewards for knowledge, skills and attitude development, as well as for progression to a higher organisational level.
  • Attention is given to career development within the current job.

Although all of these activities focus on careers within an organisation, most are still appropriate for employers providing development leading to employability rather than long-term employment. Waterman et al. (1994) stress that employers need to move to an adult/adult relationship with their employees from that of parent/child, be prepared to share critical organisational information and let go of the old notion of loyalty, thus accepting that good employees will leave. Hiltrop (1996) provides a good range of suggestions for managing the changing psychological contract.

Perhaps the most outstanding challenge is to come to terms with the facts that careers have changed due to a changing organisational structure and competitive demands; that individuals in our current labour market have a greater say in their career and how it relates to their whole life; and that alternative career profiles are equally legitimate. It is a sad reflection that in most research career development activities are not found to have a high profile (see, for example, Atkinson 2000).

Source: Torrington Derek, Hall Laura, Taylor Stephen (2008), Human Resource Management, Ft Pr; 7th edition.

1 thoughts on “Individual career management and Organisational support

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