Benefits of a Career Pathways Tool

Last updated: August 29, 2021
Estimated reading time: 4 min


At The Management Center, we often coach clients through decisions about internal promotions, staff retention, and hiring that maximize equity, sustainability, and great results. Here are some of the questions we hear most often:

  • “I have a staff member who has been here for a while and wants a promotion. I don’t think they’re ready. How do I tell them that”
  • “I have a staff member who is doing really well and I would like to promote her. But promotion means she will be in a managerial role, and she doesn’t want to be a manager of people. I’m stuck.”
  • “One of my lead team members wants to leave because he doesn’t feel he can grow here. I think I can get him to stay if I offer him a ‘Senior Director’ title—is that a good idea?”
  • “We’re hiring for a Deputy Director and I need to do external recruitment because I’m not confident we’d have a strong internal pool. How do I explain that to my three department heads without killing morale?”

At first glance, it might seem like each manager is dealing with a different challenge, but one tool can help leaders make each of these decisions—a career pathways tool.

What is a “career pathways tool”?

A career pathways tool defines and delineates competencies for each position across a range of roles. Sometimes called a “competency model” in HR circles, each role has its own must-haves*—the required skills, knowledge, or mindsets to succeed in the role—while the career pathways tool goes a little further by naming each level and showing the distinct (often increasing) responsibilities. This may include:

  • scope of what they’re responsible for
  • complexity of activities, partnerships, or campaigns they handle
  • volume of work or level of efficiency needed
  • ability to drive the work in their area or for the organization
  • positional power and influence inside/outside the organization

*Not sure about your must-haves? Use our Figuring Out the Role Worksheet.

For example, suppose you’re articulating the career path for your Operations and Finance teams—you’ll start by defining the competencies needed for each job, and then define how those competencies evolve at increasing levels of responsibility (from Assistant to Associate to Director, for example). With this framework, you can articulate what someone needs to do to be successful in a job and progress in the organization, as well as their career goals.

Why do we need one?

A good career pathways tool will operationalize your commitment to equity and inclusion.

For managers: a career pathways tool is a compass. When created with equity in mind, the tool brings consistency to the rubrics managers use to eliminate bias in hiring and performance management, while guiding managers to think through opportunities or training that helps staff achieve their career goals. It guides staff development and retention conversations, informs promotion and hiring decisions, and anchors performance evaluations.

For staff: a career pathways tool is like a road atlas. It can help staff understand how to get from point A to B (or C), which onramps are available, and what bridges they need to build. A pathways tool empowers staff to take charge of their growth and think ahead about their trajectory in the following ways:

  • Short-term: What do I need to be successful in my current job?
  • Medium-term: What do I need to do to get to the next level?
  • Long-term: What options might I have to shape my career in line with the organization’s plans and strategy?

In this way, the pathways tool takes the guesswork out of advancement. It can reveal avenues for “zigzag career paths” instead of assuming “straight-up the ladder” is their only option to grow, and it can give staff insight on the skills and qualities managers look for when it comes to promotions and performance evaluations—where we always recommend “no surprises.”

For the organization: the process can help the organization spot roadblocks or construction zones in its leadership pipeline. Your goal is to ensure each pathway strengthens the leadership bench and reflects equitable opportunities for staff at all levels. This means each decision you make in developing your career pathway tool is a critical choice point where you can pause, spot, and address inequities in particular job roles. For example, you might acknowledge that your operations team includes the most new staff members, many of whom are BIPOC and work part-time roles. In putting together your career pathways, you would gather input from staff and deliberately build in opportunities or new levels that could enable a part-time associate to eventually advance to coordinator, then manager, etc.

What do we need to get started?

Decide on the roles you want to develop career pathways for, starting with the most prevalent roles in your organization. As you think through each role and pathway, make sure you seek input and provide opportunities for staff members and managers to fully understand what the tool is and how it’ll be used in your organization.

Ready to get started? Follow the step-by-step guide in our Career Pathways Toolkit and find templates and examples.

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