When asking the question, “what is a career path?” the answer may look different for every unique individual. Career paths are often non-linear and take on lives of their own as professionals transition through different roles throughout their lives. Most commonly, someone’s chosen career path is thought to be a subject and/or industry they are highly passionate about.

What is a Career Path and Why is it Important?

However, data shows this isn’t always true. According to a recent survey, only 20% of employees in the U.S. report being passionate about their work. In 2020, a report by The Conference Board showed that over 50% of people surveyed reported they were satisfied with their jobs.

However, satisfaction and passion are two different things. Usually, what keeps an employee passionate and motivated in their career is the future they see for themselves within the organization or their chosen industry. This is why defining a career path is so important for people to be truly engaged in their roles.

What is a Career Path? Defining the Basics

A career path is essentially a series of titles an employee will aim to hold at a specific organization or within a specific industry. To reach their highest professional potential. In a career development study published by Robert L. Laud and Matthew Johnson, one thing is clear: true fulfillment in one’s career can vary widely from one person to the next.

They assert that you may see individuals who are quite content in their roles but have had little to no career progression. Which is the traditional marker of success. Conversely, it is possible to find high-level executives who have held multiple roles and achieved objective success in their career development but are deeply unsatisfied in their roles for one reason or another.

Career pathing is looking at the individual passions, motivators, and ideal job conditions to craft a one-of-a-kind path for them. For example, someone might be a top performer in their current role but wouldn’t be happy moving into a management position because they do not enjoy the tasks managers take on.

Objective success in one’s career path points to a need for upward mobility, but for some, having a fulfilling career path may mean moving laterally or cross-departmentally as opposed to moving straight upward into management.

In essence, this means career pathing will look very different from employee to employee. Some may desire the traditional upward ladder into management. While others may branch out into different subsects of the industry after mastering their current role. No matter what, the most important part of career pathing is uncovering and defining what success and fulfillment look like to the specific person and tailoring career development around that.

The Importance of Developing a Career Path

From an organization’s standpoint, the importance of developing career paths with its employees is multifaceted. We’ve repeatedly seen how upward mobility and development opportunities. Greatly impact an employee’s happiness at their company. Career pathing helps employees feel more motivated and empowered to achieve their desired development.

It also helps companies replace high-level staff as they leave or retire. If companies are keeping a good pulse on their employees’ development and strengths, they can internally backfill open roles much more quickly (and with much less capital) by promoting an employee who showed interest in that position on a career map.

Career paths also help employees improve and stay motivated. If an employee never sits down to think about their future within an industry or company, they may lose sight of what motivates them and become disengaged or burnt out. By taking the time to outline a career path, employees set goals for themselves and are motivated to take the necessary steps to reach their goals.

A Manager’s Role in Career Pathing

Setting a career path should be a collaborative effort between manager and employee. Not only does it makes the employee feel more supported and empowered within their company, but it also allows the manager insights into how this employee could be an asset to the company in the future.

When crafting a career path, it should start with the manager asking (or writing down) some key questions the employee can answer about what the broad scope of their ideal career progression looks like.

Good questions to ask to get an overview of an employee’s development desires would be:

  • Where do you see yourself in the company in five years?
  • What kinds of roles excite you?
  • Do you feel like any of your skills are underutilized in your current role?
  • What kind of work-life balance do you desire?
  • What kinds of work would you like to avoid in your future roles?

Essentially, the idea is to get a grip on where the employee wants to be, not just career-wise, but where they want to see their personal life and other factors. Based on the conversation and what is already known about the employee’s strengths, weaknesses, education, and communication style. And more – you can begin to compile feasible options for upward movement.

Managers can suggest one or two career paths they see as being a good fit. But at the end of the day, it’s the employee’s choice as to what career path they want to follow.

Regardless of the employee’s desire, the manager’s main job is to ensure the employee has every resource needed to get to their desired outcome and makes a roadmap of when and how they need to reach new milestones.

The organization can support career development across all functions by providing internal resources and benefits that facilitate development.

Some examples of crucial resources for employee development are:

  • Internal job postings that are easily accessible. These job postings should also clearly state the requirements for the role. So employees get an idea of what skills they need to earn a title of that kind.
  • A simple and accessible internal application process.
  • Access to interact with employees who are already in their desired job role and learn from them.
  • Coaching and feedback from managers.
  • Training and educational opportunities. These can either be provided in-house, or the company can post relevant training opportunities nearby. Some companies offer to reimburse staff for outside training and mentorship courses.
  • Job shadowing. It’s a great perk if an employee can follow a person in the role they’d like to explore further. To ensure it is the best fit for them.
  • And more!

Creating Your Career Path

After you’ve explored your desires, current performance, and opportunities within your company. And with your manager, you’ll want to make a tangible map of where you plan to go next. Your manager may want to help, or you can do this on your own.

Essentially, pick a job role you’d like to move into next. Then, use your company’s internal resources and the manager’s advice as to what steps. Training or development you need to be considered for that role.

Create a loose but still realistic timeline of when and how you will take the next steps toward your next title. You can share this with your manager so they know your goals and can help you take the necessary steps forward as needed.

Additional Considerations to Make When Drafting Your Career Path

  • You define and decide on your career goals. Your manager may be tempted to push you in a certain direction. Especially if they are only comfortable with the specifics of one career path. However, you can and should locate the resources you need to do what you want with your career development.
  • Take ownership of your career path. You can seek out mentorship, training, and job shadowing opportunities. And more but it’s you alone who can make the difference in your career path. If you aren’t actively finding new ways to learn skills and improve, no one will do it for you. You can’t expect your manager to oversee your career development – these are actions you must take accountability for implementing.
  • It’s never too late. Those who have been in their roles for a longer period may often feel as though it’s “too late”. For a more radical shift, like a cross-departmental shift or trying a new industry. It’s never too late to chase the goals you want to chase. These mental barriers can feel very real, but they are just that – they are self-limiting beliefs that only you have the power to destroy.

Bottom Line

Engaging in career pathing benefits employees, managers, and the organization at large. Employees with access to development resources are happier and stay at the company longer. And can become perfect fits for internal promotions, putting less pressure on HR to find external candidates.

Plus, when searching for fulfillment in a career, the most important objective is to know what fulfillment looks like to them. Career paths help employees lay out what their desired career looks like and serves as a reminder of how to get there. By taking the time to gather resources and talk to employees about their desired career paths. Organizations benefit greatly in several ways, while making a profound impact on an employee’s professional trajectory.

If you came to this article asking, “What is a career path?” hopefully, you are walking away with the information and processes you need to get started on encouraging employees to engage in meaningful career pathing.

The eLeaP people success platform, which features a continuous performance management system, provides organizations with powerful options to attract and retain high-caliber team members.