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Adaptive Career Pathing: The Future-Proof Strategy for Retaining Top Talent

Adaptive Career Pathing: The Future-Proof Strategy for Retaining Top Talent

May 2024


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Do you know where your career will take you in the next five years? What about your fellow leaders? What about your staff?

Gartner recently reported that less than a third of employees understand where their career should go in the next half-decade. And just one in four workers is confident about their career path at their current organization.

The ever-evolving modern landscape is making it difficult for professionals to understand what to work toward. Many are struggling to chart a clear path forward as they try to figure out the next step (let alone the next phase) of their professional journey. 

HR leaders can help with this career management conundrum by embracing the concept of adaptive career pathing

Static vs Adaptive Career Paths: What’s the Difference?

Careers have traditionally followed a pre-determined path. In the distant past, individuals were expected from birth to inherit their parent’s jobs and continue the family legacy.

In the modern era, traditional career maps became more individualized, but they still remained relatively fixed. Once a person chose their career, these static career maps prescribed pre-defined, linear trajectories. You had to follow specific paths within certain job families if you wanted to succeed. This required climbing well-structured corporate ladders over time with an ultimate fixed destination in mind, such as a CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CHRO, or other C-suite position.

The Growing Issue with Static Career Paths

This static approach does not adapt well to the changing business landscape of the 21st century. Nor does it serve employee interests as roles continue to evolve (and at times become irrelevant) over time.

What is needed is a new approach to a multi-decade career. This is where adaptive career pathing comes into the picture.

Adaptive Career Pathing

Adaptive career pathing focuses on the journey. It accepts the fact that an individual’s ultimate career destination may be a moving target—and that’s okay. 

Rather than map out the route to a specific position, an adaptive approach to a career is to identify areas of interest and skill. From there, it aligns these strengths with business needs in short cycles focused on experience as well as education. The adaptive approach to career growth heavily emphasizes:

  • Flexibility: By avoiding over-committing to a specific career path, employees can maintain a more dynamic approach to career growth. For example, instead of an accountant being locked into only advancing within accounting roles, they could explore opportunities in financial analysis, operations, or data analytics that leverage their transferable skills.
  • Career iterations: Adaptive pathing views a career as an iterative professional journey, where an individual can tinker and make adjustments at each stage. An engineer may start in product development, then take a rotation in project management, before transitioning into a strategic leadership role over time. 
  • Cycles: Rather than plug into a long-term plan, professionals divide their career work into shorter cycles to allow for more frequent adjustments.
  • Experiential diversity: From opportunities to educational tools, there is a greater emphasis on gaining experiences across different roles and areas. A marketing professional could pursue a temporary expatriate assignment, job shadowing, or an internal gig project to build new capabilities.
  • Retargeting: Agile career pathing consistently aligns employees with current business needs. As new priorities emerge, an HR business partner could be redeployed to support a transformation initiative before later pivoting to another focus area.
  • Horizontal mobility: Adaptive careers enable employees to make lateral career moves and diversify skill sets over time.

Adaptive career pathing embraces the inconsistencies and unpredictability that traditional static career maps sought to avoid.

Adaptive Career Pathing: The Way Forward

Adaptive career pathing is a new form of professional development built for a rapidly evolving 21st-century business landscape. It eschews the rigidity of traditional career maps and accepts that, while their value may remain constant, the specifics of a worker’s contributions change over time.

Adaptive career pathing also empowers employees to maintain marketable skills and gain valuable experiences. It ensures that as they make each career shift (the average employee changes jobs every 4.1 years) they are up to date with their experiences and industry knowledge.

An adaptive approach allows HR teams to personalize career support. They can help employees build portfolios of experiences. They can also retain a more agile workforce that is easier to deploy based on current business needs.

This is a natural win-win. Empowered, confident employees can cultivate high levels of engagement. At the same time, leaders can maintain high-quality talent pipelines that can conform to whatever business needs arise. 

If you’ve noticed a lack of flexibility within your workforce, it may be time to rework your company’s approach to a career path. It may be time to embrace adaptive career pathing. 

As the leaders responsible for talent management and employee development, CHROs and C-suite leaders should take the lead in championing this adaptive approach to career pathing. By doing so, they can ensure their organizations have the agile and engaged workforce needed to thrive in today’s rapidly changing business landscape.

Our team at Stanton Chase can help. We have extensive experience not just in executive search but in assessing and improving organizational structure. Together, we can help your company adapt to the endless, intensifying cycles of change and even maintain a competitive edge over time.

About the Author

William Brewer, CCP, is a Director at Stanton Chase Los Angeles. He is also Stanton Chase’s Global Human Resources Functional Leader. Prior to moving into executive search, Bill had 25 years of experience in corporate human resources. In addition to his executive search career, Bill is an adjunct Professor at the University of Redlands. Bill also serves as a mentor for the MBA program at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and has been a mentor with the School of Business at the University of Redlands.  

Executive Assessment
Executive Search
Human Resources
Leadership Development
Talent Management and Employee Well-Being

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