Career Advice for Job Seekers

Career advancement: What it is and how to achieve it

William Frierson AvatarWilliam Frierson
January 31, 2014

Climbing career path; career advancement

Climbing career path; career advancement. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Career advancement is one of the most important elements for employee satisfaction and retention at a company. According to Victor Lipman of Forbes, clear opportunities for career advancement are an “especially powerful” employee motivator. Speaking of his observations as a manager at multiple companies, Lipman notes, “At times when career paths were clear, individuals tended to be more motivated, with tangible goals to work towards. At times when career paths were dim or nonexistent, individuals tended to be less motivated, less focused, more uncertain. […] That’s why it makes good business sense for organizations of all sizes to spend time developing and maintaining thoughtfully structured career path systems.

The importance of career advancement in motivating and retaining employees makes the findings of one study particularly concerning. According to a press release, professional services organization Thomas Watson discovered in a recent survey that only 37 percent of companies in the U.S. and Canada stated that their employees understand how they can shape their careers in their given role. Additionally, only 44 percent of companies report that their employees are actually able to obtain the career advancement opportunities they desire. Other key findings:

  • Only one third of companies that partook in the survey reported defining vertical career paths for their employees.
  • While 67 percent of the companies surveyed reported using technology for employee training and development purposes, only 44 percent of these same companies stated that they use such technology effectively.
  • A mere 25 percent of survey respondents said that managers effectively provide career advancement to their employees.

As these findings suggest, there is a significant gap between employees’ desire for career advancement and the actual opportunities they are afforded in the workplace.

Defining career advancement

Part of the reason for the lack of advancement opportunities at many companies is the fact that the definition of professional advancement differs from employee to employee, making it particularly difficult to address the needs of everyone. To some individuals, career advancement means reaching a top position at a particular company; for others, it could mean gaining experience in multiple professional fields in order to create a unique and versatile role for oneself. Still other ideas of career advancement include an entrepreneur’s dreams of success, an author’s hopes for publication, and a developer’s desire to acquire more complex technical capabilities while on-the-job.

Despite peoples’ varied definitions of career advancement, there are nevertheless aspects of the workplace that management at any company can address in order to increase their employees’ advancement opportunities, engagement and loyalty. Essential components of an effective career advancement plan: expanding employees’ skills sets, giving them additional responsibilities that lead to an evolution or a changing of their roles, acknowledging accomplishments through raises and promotions, and offering a tailored career advancement plan for each employee that aligns with his or her professional goals.

In an interview with CIO, Wendy Duarte, VP of recruiting at consulting company Mondo, explained how companies can retain more of their top talent by truly listening to their employees. “One of the key things […] is to find out if [your employees] are getting the resources to add to and change their roles, to take on more and different responsibilities, to spearhead new projects, to experiment,” she explained. “Most people don’t want to come to a job every day and just slog through, doing the same thing day after day. They want to learn new things, try new things, and if you can support their efforts to do that, you’ll inspire loyalty and that can help with retention.”

The power of sponsorship

The responsibility for advancing one’s career doesn’t just lie in the hands of employers, however. Employees are also responsible for both vocalizing what they want to learn and achieve on the job, and actively pursuing such knowledge and accomplishments independently of any employee development program. For example, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett explains how making one’s own opportunities is crucial for career development in her new book “(Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor.” Hewlett’s work focuses particularly on the career opportunities (or lack thereof) for women and minorities. “Less than 8 percent of the top earners in this economy are female. That is the figure of 15 years ago, and it hasn’t shifted at all — despite the fact that 34 percent of middle managers are now female,” Hewlett notes in an interview with The Washington Post.

The reason for this disparity? The lack of a sponsor, Hewlett argues. “[W]omen are only half as likely as men to have a sponsor — a senior champion at work who will basically take a bet on them, tap them on the shoulder, and really give them a shot at leadership.” In contrast to mentors, who provide encouragement and friendly advice but do not actually have the power to propel their mentees’ careers, sponsors are influential people in the workplace who can place their protégés on impactful projects and actively connect them with the right people. Sponsorship, unlike mentorship, is a reciprocal relationship, in that sponsors invest a good amount of time and effort into promoting their protégé’s capabilities, and in turn expect stellar performance from the people they take under their wing.

Unlike both mentorship and career development programs, the concept of sponsorship requires the recipients of such endorsement to put in as much effort — if not more — than their sponsors. “The cardinal rule here is to give before you get. […] Figure out how you can be valuable and sponsorship flows,” Hewlett advises. “You don’t walk into someone’s office, particularly someone you don’t know, and say, ‘Will you sponsor me?’ That is a guaranteed route to failure on this front.”

Finding a sponsor also requires strong focus and getting out of one’s comfort zone. “You have to know, in some large way, what your destination is, what your dream is.” Additionally, Hewlett found in her research that “[W]omen in particular often choose the wrong people. They’re vaguely aware they need a champion, someone to speak out for them, but they seek out a senior person they’re very comfortable with.” Instead of choosing someone with whom you get along, people looking to advance should select sponsors whom they respect, but who are first and foremost excellent leaders, rather than friends or role models. “Role models are great, but they may not prove to be effective sponsors, so put efficacy over affinity,” Hewlett noted in an interview with Forbes. “You need to be very strategic and tactful by looking for a sponsor with the power to change your career.”

By forging powerful relationships, honing your goals, and delivering excellent work, you can advance your career even if your employers don’t have clear career advancement tracks in place for their employees.

By Kaitlin Louie

This article is originally published on

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