Careers Don’t Develop – People Do

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It’s funny how words are combined or concepts become conflated, giving birth to a new expression. We use it automatically without much thought. Until we wake up one day, reflect on its component parts with clear eyes, and realize that it no longer makes sense.

This is the case with ‘career development.’

For decades, employees, leaders and organizations have used the expression, career development, reflexively. Early on, it worked. .

But today, that career ladder in many organizations is all but dead. Downsizing. Outsourcing. Flatter structures. Baby Boomers staying at the party far longer than expected. The gig economy and other non-traditional working relationships.

The landscape has changed dramatically. Yet the expectation of ‘career development’ remains. And leaders inadvertently continue to reinforce these unrealistic expectations.

So, it’s time to wake up, and realize that careers don’t develop, people do. It’s time for leaders and employees to have honest conversations about what’s truly possible.

But in deconstructing the expression, we can’t lose ‘development.’ People represent an organization’s only sustainable competitive advantage. When those people are allowed to learn, grow, and develop, organizations succeed and thrive.

Helping people grow and develop in today’s environment boils down to  four key leadership priorities:

  • Keep talking. Conversation is a powerful tool for understanding others, sharing information, and maintaining a vibrant, evolving relationship.
  • Refocus people on what they want to do versus what they want to be. Linking development to positions is limiting; but a creative leader will help invite into someone’s current role elements of what they want to be doing – without changing jobs.
  • Highlight learning. Help people pause long enough to reflect on knowledge, insights, and experience gained and to integrate it into their work. A simple question like, ‘What did you learn from that?’ helps others translate ordinary, mundane happenings into genuine development.
  • Recognize growth. Development can feel microscopic and go unnoticed day-to-day. But the cumulative effects can be profound. Point it out. Highlight and celebrate progress. This creates an upward spiral of motivation to learn and grow more.

When you start putting words and concepts together, ‘people development’ is an expression that makes a lot more sense today than ‘career development.’


Julie Winkle Giulioni has spent the past 25 years working with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning.  Named one of Inc. Magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, Julie is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want, a respected speaker on a variety of topics, and a regular contributor to many business publications.