Career Pathing: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

Career pathing empowers employees. Here’s how HR leaders can lend a hand.

Written by Sunny Betz
Career Pathing: What Is It and Why Is It Important?
Image: Shutterstock
Rose Velazquez | Aug 30, 2022

It’s very rare that someone’s career goals remain the same throughout their entire professional life. Since aspirations and plans naturally shift when an employee gains new skills and adapts to their role, career pathing is often necessary. Career pathing lays out a trajectory for an employee’s professional development and identifies ways an employer can support and foster that growth

It’s important for managers and HR leaders to ask what a person’s career plans are on a regular basis throughout the entire span of their time with the company, not just on day one.

What Is Career Pathing?

Career pathing involves a manager or HR leader gaining insight into an employee’s professional ambitions by meeting with them regularly to listen and ask questions. This process helps employers determine opportunities to support an employee’s growth and development.

To help your employees come up with a career gameplan, learn what makes them tick, what their goals are and what they envision for the next few months and years. Your role as their leader is to guide them to where they want to go — but first, take a seat and listen to what they have to say.

“The top priority of any people leader should be the development of their team,” Joanna Woo, head of people for software company CruxOCM, said. “In order to build a high performing team, high levels of trust, psychological safety, and open communication are required and one of the best ways to foster all three is to be invested in the career development of your employees.”

Before you begin helping your employees come up with a career pathing plan, here’s what people leaders say you need to know now.


How Career Pathing Works

When CruxOCM had an opening for a software engineer, Woo knew the perfect person for the role. A test engineer within CruxOCM had shared an interest in transitioning to a software engineer role someday. When Woo and a manager sat down to discuss making the move, the engineer expressed concerns her technical skills weren’t up to par. That wasn’t a problem though, Woo said.

“We asked her to consider going through the interview process regardless and let her know that we asked her because we thought she’d be a good fit for the role,” she said. “Despite her doubt in her own abilities, she interviewed for the role and began her journey as a software engineer shortly after.”

Rather than being stuck in a role she excelled at but felt stagnant in, the test engineer was given the freedom to take a risk and pursue her own career path. Woo says that, while this story stands out in her memory, it’s just one of many examples of how encouraging career pathing lets HR leaders help employees reach their full potential.

How to Help Employees With Career Pathing

  • Make career development an ongoing conversation — not a once a year occurrence.
  • Ask lots of questions, and listen first before giving feedback.
  • Offer challenging assignments and tasks to build their skill sets.
  • Adopt a learning management system to track progress and maintain accountability.
  • Make learning and development a part of your benefits package.

Among the many roles an HR leader has to fill, mentorship and guidance with career development are two of the most important. When employees are encouraged to follow their dreams and create a career path that works for them, they’ll not only become better team members — they’ll also help you become a better leader. 

“As a people leader, I take a lot of pride in the individuals I’ve hired, coached, and mentored who are now leading HR teams of their own,” Woo said. “By enabling my team to do more, I was also able to take on a more strategic role and to further my own career development.”


Make Career Pathing an Ongoing Conversation

Having frequent discussions about wins and setbacks with your employees helps you come up with proactive steps to take them to the next level.

Instead of meeting yearly, Woo suggested having one-on-one sessions with employees either weekly or bi-weekly to focus on getting to know them both personally and professionally to get at the heart of their motivators and goals.

“Ask them what they want, but also pay attention to what they’ve noticed,” Woo said. “You may have a whole list of things you’ve done to support them, but they may not have considered that as a part of career development. Remind them of available learning opportunities and help them remember how much they’re learning.”

More on Career DevelopmentSelf-Reflection: Why It’s Important for Your Career


Career Pathing Requires Asking Lots of Questions

Before you start giving advice or making a career development roadmap, pose questions that will get you to the center of your employee’s professional vision.

“Career conversations are not a time for feedback,” Elisa Vincent, VP of global talent enablement at Skillsoft, said. “Start them from a place of curiosity.”

Ask employees what they enjoy doing, what skills they see as transferable to their next role and what they’d most like to learn in their current role.

“Dive into what fuels them and drives them to be the best version of themselves,” Daniela Mancinelli, CEO of digital marketing agency N6A, said. “Once you unlock that key ingredient, refer back to their motivation, especially when you see them in times where they’ve hit a roadblock in their journey.”


Career Pathing Should Challenge Employees

Being an effective manager means not only supporting your employees, but challenging them to be stronger players. True skill building happens when people are pushed out of their comfort zone, and giving your employees stretch assignments will help them build the skills they need to level up in their careers. 

“The most important thing is just empowering your employees,” David Perry, CEO e-commerce company Carro, said. “If they are just waiting for instructions, then they stagnate. If they feel empowered you’ll find them literally working faster because they are moving with purpose.”

For example, let’s say an employee of yours in an entry-level software role expresses interest in taking on a senior development role someday. To help them get there, you could push them to enroll in a bootcamp or assign them to a project that requires them to learn a new programming language.

“One of my mentors told me that for every new opportunity, there will always be a mix of excitement and fear,” Woo said. “As long as I’m experiencing excitement at least 51 percent of the time, then it’s a step in the right direction.”  

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Implement a System for Tracking Career Growth and Development

Career growth and development can only happen if there’s a system in place to track progress, plan next steps and hold everyone involved accountable. Without some method for keeping tabs on career pathing, it’s a lot harder for employees and managers alike to keep track of milestones and achievements. 

Whether it’s through a shared spreadsheet or on a software platform, incorporating some kind of learning management system into your efforts will better align your employees with their training and career pathing plan. It will also help your employees feel more motivated to keep working on their goals when they can see everything they’ve accomplished in one place.

“We are a people first agency, and this philosophy inspired us to create and build a proprietary reporting system where managers can measure growth and progress with direct reports monthly,” Mancinelli said. “Through an online portal, managers can evaluate individual performance, progress and provide important feedback to assist with growth and training.”


Offer Career Development as a Benefit

Career pathing support is more than just nice to have — it’s something that employees have come to expect. An Axonify report from 2019 found that 76 percent of employees are more drawn to roles at companies that offer learning and development opportunities than to those that don’t. To further attract and retain talent, many companies have adopted education stipends into their benefits packages. Including support for learning and development in your company’s benefits policy is a meaningful way to demonstrate your commitment to your employees’ career growth

Benefits related to opportunities for professional development and training have surged to the top of employees’ wish lists,” Vincent said. “Benefits should focus on setting employees up for success and providing them with the tools and support systems needed to continuously learn and upskill. Couple this with aligning employees with mentors that can guide them along personalized growth paths, and you’ll have two key ingredients in a winning benefits recipe.”

Read MoreCareer Advice: Tips on Managing Burnout and Balance


Encourage Employees to Pursue Their Career Path

Some employers fear that when their employees level up their skill sets, they’ll want to start looking for a new place to work. But statistically, the opposite is true — in fact, around 94 percent of employees say they’d be more engaged at work and stay longer with a company if leadership offered opportunities for learning and development.

“With the shortage of great talent, it’s in every company’s interest to help develop the talent they have,” Woo said. “While some companies fear that helping an employee grow their career might mean that the employee may leave for a better opportunity, what they should fear instead is if their employees become stagnant and stay at their company.”

Being a good manager means encouraging your employees to follow their own career paths, even if those take them away from their company. It can be hard to say goodbye to an employee after investing time in their career development and in honing their skills. But according to Vincent, an employee leaving to pursue higher callings is a sign of a leadership job well done. 

“I believe that your role as a leader is to equip your team with the mindsets, skill sets, and toolsets to do their jobs, to feel successful and valued, to be resilient, and to thrive,” Vincent said. “The sign of a successful leader is when your team can continue to grow and thrive without you.”

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