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Career Paths vs. Succession Paths – the road less traveled or shooting straight for the top?

As it turns out, creating a career path for employees – aligned with their hopes and ambitions, laden with opportunities for growth along the way – dramatically improves employee retention. Done well, it helps to fulfill employees’ sense of purpose and helps drive proactivity and diversity in the company workforce.


Furthermore, a well-structured and clear career path can also serve as a recruitment tool. The proof is in the stories of some of the world’s leading brands – from tech to fitness – where top achievers attract other high performers thanks to their high-profile career pathways.

From a business perspective, career paths can act as the brand’s succession planner. While it’s crucial the employee sits at the heart of it, a well executed career path can help a brand identify potential successors to critical roles – as well as spot staff who are suitable to lead bespoke roles that sing to their strengths.


But what exactly is the difference between a career path and a succession path?


A career path is an individual roadmap that plans a progressive growth journey from the current position through successive roles to arrive at the ultimate goal. It can include short and long term benchmarks and may be sequential, a squiggly line, or something in between.


A succession plan is a specific roadmap to groom identified high-potential internal candidates for a future leadership role. Steps are put in place to provide opportunities and experience that prepare employees to take on critical roles to ensure business continuity.


So how does a brand build individual employee pathways to develop their people while securing their future through succession planning? And are there any pitfalls or do’s and don’ts?


Here’s the Good Soul Guide to laying a path for your employees


1. Stocktake

Regardless of which pathway you’re constructing, everything starts with a transparent base layer:

  • review your existing organizational structure

  • future proof for expected short to medium-term strategic adjustments (market shifts, product expansion, omni-channel delivery, competition, partnerships etc.)

  • unpack each role in the business and ensure there is a clear documented job description, list of qualifications, skills and experience needed, for each.


2. Plot Existing Pathways

Map the existing promotional pathways in the business and capture retrospective staff journeys tracing back through the company’s existence. Some employee trajectories may be linear from junior to senior roles within a department. Others may shift across the company or lead new initiatives for the brand. Gather success stories as these reflect existing developmental paths and the culture of ascension in this brand.


3. Find Future Rockstars

Every employee should have a development plan regardless of their level and role. Identifying ‘who’s who in the zoo’ in terms of performance and potential is paramount. In terms of identifying talent for business-critical roles, the combination of skill set, ambition and culture-fit, needs to be in alignment for the greatest chance of success.


4. Drive Development from Day One

An employee’s first day should mark the beginning of their journey to the next step in their career. Training they receive along the way can be both generic and specific. Basic company needs include communication and project management modules, while the more specialized training should be honed around their skillset or needs identified in ongoing performance reviews – as well as their desired future development direction.


5. Embrace Mentoring

Pairing employees with more experienced colleagues, or sometimes the reverse, can bridge generational and experience gaps. Guidance can be offered to work towards career goals and is a great way to motivate both parties. These mentors are invaluable, as culture accelerators, on-the-job guides and advocates for junior staff as future opportunities come up for them related to their strengths and capabilities.


6. Facilitate Continuous Performance Feedback Loops

Like projects, people can also improve remarkably with considered feedback. Regular performance feedback should form a crucial part of a career pathway, as it helps employees identify areas for improvement and develop their skills in real time. Aim to provide radical honesty, but sent with love and the intention to improve in a supportive environment.


7. Develop a Talent Pool

Make sure your career pathways are planned with your overall talent pool in mind. By identifying potential successors for each key position, you can ensure the advancement goals of employees are in line with organizational needs. It can also inform the gaps you may need to hire for. With pivotal shifts in technology and the need to meet customers expectations in multiple ways may require increasing the talent pool with different skilled employees.


8. Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Just like business, career pathing and succession planning is never done. Market shifts, pivots in business strategy and ever-changing culture requires you to adjust for the future. A washing machine of hard skills, soft skills, and managing hybrid teams in an increasingly gig economy.


People are purpose-driven and innately coded to grow. Progressive brands satisfy these needs by continuously evolving their employee experience and investing in development for all staff.


Give employees a place to grow that’s aligned with their dreams and challenges their genius, and there is a high likelihood they’ll stick around to invest their personal equity here.


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