When development isn’t about the next step on the ladder


In a recent coaching conversation, I was working with a manager to help them identify their opportunities for development and understand how these aligned to their career goals and ambitions. This was someone who had achieved significant success in the early stages of their career, held a number of challenging roles already and was now four years into their role managing a small team and doing very well. Through the assessment we had conducted, he was also demonstrating many of the leadership competencies that would suggest the capability to progress to broader leadership roles in future.


Certainly, the organisation had already ‘pinpointed’ this manager as someone whom they felt demonstrated much potential, hence the reason for his inclusion in this particular leadership development initiative.


After we had discussed the feedback and other data points that had been gathered through the assessment process, my question to them was, quite simply: “what areas do you want to work on, to support your career goals?”


Their line manager, also in the session, started to chime in very quickly with their well-intentioned suggestions including the following:

  • Raise your profile, get to know those people who will advocate for your next career move;
  • Put your hand up for ‘extra’ projects and other opportunities to show that you are keen to stretch yourself; and
  • (the very-frequently-cited)…act as relief in the line manager’s role!


Whilst these are not in themselves bad suggestions and may be completely appropriate for many who are seeking to gain further experience, the challenge for this individual was this: he had no interest in pursuing any of these.

When I (diplomatically) intercepted the line manager’s line of suggestions, and again asked the individual what they saw as their key development priorities, the response we heard completely challenged everything the line manager was suggesting.


He initially hesitated, before admitting the following – that he was very keen to continue doing what he was doing. He wanted to hold the role he had now, and continue to deliver (or improve) the results he has been achieving to date. Certainly, he described wanting to continue honing his skills around coaching his team, and keeping up with industry knowledge and trends.…. But in short, he loved the role, and was very happy to stay with it.


When I probed further, he did suggest his thoughts may change in future depending on his circumstances and what opportunities came about, but overall he saw himself staying put. He was exactly where he wanted to be. Indefinitely.


What followed in the session was interesting. The Line Manager was initially taken aback. He sought first to clarify (“Really? You don’t want my role??”) before almost starting to question or even challenge the view of their direct report (“But don’t you want to progress?”). It seemed both a surprise and an improbability – inconceivable! – that this high performing manager in their team, whom they had slated in their mind as the most likely and ready successor to their role, was in fact not interested at all in making that next career move upwards.


At this point in the session we spent some time discussing goals. As psychologists, our philosophy is that goals are very much defined by the individual, and largely not to be entered into debate with others. You may have a view of whether I am likely to reach my goals – for example, if I tried to set out to win Wimbledon next year! – however, those goals are my goals and no one else’s to determine. Not only are my career goals and preferences mine to define and shape, but they are also open to change and that is acceptable too!


The other interesting observation from the session, is that once we started asking the manager about their thoughts on their development priorities given the context of their career goals, it turned into a much more engaged and energetic discussion. It was clear that they suddenly saw the ‘WIIFM’ factor.


After the session, I debriefed with the Line Manager. He admitted he felt it was a positive and constructive meeting… however, he now found himself questioning whether this individual was in fact the ‘high potential’ he originally thought him to be: “maybe he’s not the high achiever we thought he was”.


This is a common reaction from leaders who can feel confused about how to define potential and apply those ideas to how they grow and develop their teams. Yes, motivation to grow and advance is often identified as a key component of potential (‘Are you a High Potential?’ HBR, 2010) – but does that motivation always have to be in the form of wanting to step up into the next most senior role?  It is also very common for leaders, who often hold ambitious career goals themselves, to pass judgement or criticise (at worst) when others do not aspire to the same – or at best, accept this but then wonder: “how on earth do I support this person’s development if they just want to stay where they are?” These issues are compounded further by an increasing reality – that the opportunity for promotions are in short supply in many organisations, and that many leaders and HR partners are grappling with ways to support in-role growth.

This is where a few key principles come into play:

  1. Career development always sits with the individual. It is their responsibility to drive and take ownership of their career, however they do need and should expect the support of their line manager and organisation to help them develop and progress in whatever way is most appropriate – both for them and for the organisation.
  2. Leaders should keep in mind that career progression is no longer represented only by a vertical ladder. The concept of the ‘career lattice’ has been around for several years now and is informing much career development practice as a flexible and modern way of supporting employees and leaders to develop their careers (Benko and Anderson, 2010).
  3. Leaders and HR both are charged with finding ways to help develop and retain talent that is highly valuable to their organisation, and yet may not be interested in progressing to more senior roles. This could include specific interventions such as: leveraging their expertise to help others develop (e.g. coach and train new staff), being called upon for contribution to special projects and initiatives, and temporary secondments into other parts of the organisation in order to learn new skills. It also calls on leaders to reframe for their team members what development looks like beyond traditional vertical moves – to redefine advancement and career success to include consideration of lateral, cross functional, flexible moves that provide alternative opportunities for growth and retention. Many individuals we work with think they are expected to want to move vertically; organisations and leaders especially have a role in defining what career development can look like, and discuss different ways to think about it.


These concepts are not only necessary given the trend towards organisations that are increasingly matrixed and flat in structure, but also to reflect a more diverse range of views people now hold about their careers. Ultimately, career development discussions are likely to be more successful by ensuring we are open to others’ goals as they are, and by thinking in creative and flexible ways about the best way to retain, value and grow talent who wish to stay where they are (for now, at least) – rather than ‘force-growing’ them into a role they never wanted in the first place.





  • Paul Power says:

    An extremely important insight. Too many senior managers, and coaches for that matter, make the assumption that they know what is best for the person, but they never take the time to discover what it is that the person really wants to be, or what they want to do.

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