The Leadership Star

Build Engagement by Turning People’s Jobs Into Careers

Adapted from “The Leadership Star: A Practical Guide to Building Engagement” by Brian Hartzer ©2021 and is reproduced with permission from Wiley. Learn more.

If we’ve learned anything from the Great Resignation, it’s that people want careers, not just jobs. Jobs are easy to quit, while an organization that helps its people build their careers is much more likely to sustain long-term commitment.  That’s why career development must become an integral part of your organization’s culture. And as a leader, it’s not enough to rely on the HR department—it’s your responsibility to help your people grow their skills and experience, so that their careers can thrive within your organization.

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Remote or ‘hybrid’ working—plus the financial strains of a post-COVID environment—has meant that many leaders have seen investing in their people’s skills as too hard or simply not a high priority.  But this is short-sighted:  Viewing people as merely cogs in a wheel and not investing in their development will ultimately result in higher turnover, lower engagement, and lower growth—almost certainly offsetting any savings in time or training dollars.  So how can you create a learning culture in your organization?  Here are a few suggestions.

Role model a development focus

It’s a modern truism that people need to take control of their own career development.  But if you expect your people to take their development seriously, they need to see that it’s important to you. This means regularly setting aside time to think about each individual’s development needs, discussing and agreeing specific development goals and steps required, and following up to make sure that it happens.

Before each development meeting, take a few minutes to consider what observations and advice you can give to each individual to help them grow — they’ll notice the care for them that this effort implies, and are much more likely to take the process seriously.

Senior people often feel that they are ‘too busy’ or ‘beyond’ needing development or coaching. But if they don’t make development a priority for themselves, you can be sure that they won’t be effective in making it a priority throughout the rest of the organization.

You also need to make your own commitment to developing your skills and capabilities. I’m fortunate that my own innate curiosity (and awareness of my personal limitations) has meant that I’m always reading and trying to learn from others. I’ve also benefited from working closely with the same coach for nearly 20 years — Barbara knows me well and I trust her completely to give me honest feedback. From time to time I’ve used other coaches as well who bring particular skills and insights that have helped me deal with difficult situations and grow as a leader.

Another good way to demonstrate your commitment is to include group development activities in your leadership agenda for the year. This could include:

  • Setting aside development days led by outside facilitators to work on team dynamics.
  • Inviting outside speakers to address team meetings or participate in Q&A.
  • Asking each person to do a 360-degree review and share the results with the team.
  • Conducting site visits as a team to your own or others’ facilities.
  • Sending team members on a study tour, with a report back to the team.

These shared experiences can be very effective at generating new ideas, increasing knowledge and skills and strengthening relationships among team members.

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Invest in training and development resources

Investing in specialized training resources is important to demonstrating a company’s commitment to its people’s development. This can include giving people access to third-party online training sites; putting dedicated trainers in each area; building your own internal training academy; or sending people to programs run by business schools such as Stanford, Harvard, or INSEAD

The scale of your investment will depend on your organization’s resources and ambitions, and more expensive training resources can be limited to high performers or people with high potential. However, training doesn’t have to be overly expensive: low-cost online resources have proliferated in recent years, and some of the most effective training comes in seminars developed by senior leaders or experienced high performers within the organization itself.

While informal training and coaching sessions are an important part of the mix, from an engagement perspective it’s important to formalize the development program and resources in some way. If you don’t do this — and regularly remind people of the resources that are available — then they can easily forget that it’s there and lose sight of the expectation that they continue to work on building their own skills and experience.

Care about results

One of the most important—and least expensive—ways to help people build their careers is by showing that you care about results.  Formal training programs and external coaching have their place, but nothing replaces one-on-one feedback from a manager about where someone is performing well, and where they’re falling short.  This form of mentoring is particularly important for young people starting out in the workplace, who often face a shock adjustment:  Unlike school, there’s no ‘partial credit’ at work. You either get something done well and on time, or you don’t. You either meet your targets, or you don’t. The consequences of a failure to deliver for your customers, your competitive position or your shareholders are usually clear.

I vividly remember the brutal direct feedback I received as a young analyst at a consulting firm, from a senior partner, when my work fell short of expectations.  It was stressful at the time, but I look back now and realize that he was one of the important bosses I ever had—because he taught me what “good” looked like.

As a leader, people need to see that you are committed to excellence and delivering results. This is because success breeds success: a team that consistently achieves stretching goals is more likely to feel proud and confident in its capabilities and, as a consequence, to become highly engaged. This helps attract other high performers to join the team, and encourages the team to take on even greater goals.

Leaders need to be simultaneously cheerleader and coach — revving up the team and encouraging a player whose confidence is shaken, while not being afraid to give tough love to a player whose head isn’t in the game or bench the player who isn’t delivering on the day.

When coupled with a demonstrated commitment to investing in people’s professional development, leaders who set demand excellence turn replaceable “jobs” into highly engaging careers that people don’t want to leave.

“The Leadership Star: A Practical Guide to Building Engagement” is available now and can be purchased below via

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