Redefining Ambition and Career Development

Many definitions of “leadership” exist; but the ones that always resonate for me involve an element of bringing people along, helping them grow and progress, and facilitating their development as people and their careers. And I have the feeling that similar definitions are deeply held by many leaders — especially given the frequency of one question I’m asked over and over:

“What should I do with my ‘I’m good where I am’ employee who lacks ambition, doesn’t seem to want to grow, and is completely disinterested in moving up, over, or anywhere?”

My answer to these leaders — who can’t help but feel that they’re shirking their responsibility if they aren’t motivating people to aspire to more — often is, “celebrate them… then get right to work challenging your own career development mindset.”

It’s easy to impose our values, priorities, and aspirations on others. But the truth is that we each have a unique definition of what success looks like and how to achieve it. Appreciating and acting upon these differences is key to unlocking potential, motivation, and growth — even with those who appear outwardly disinterested in career development. And doing this involves going deep and wide — deep into understanding the individual and wide in terms of expanding your definition of career development.

Understand the Individual

Let’s face it, employees may be satisfied where they are for any number of reasons. Perhaps they’re deeply self-aware. They know what they’re good at, what they’re interested in, and what they love. Maybe they’ve found a comfortable niche within which they experience a sense of purpose and meaning. They might have figured out how to make work fit within their broader lives and other priorities. Or maybe they’ve gotten a glimpse into the headaches that you and other leaders experience on a regular basis and have consciously decided to take a pass. Disinterest in moving up doesn’t mean someone is unambitious; it simply means the leader needs to become more interested in understanding what’s important to the person and where their ambitions lie.

Expand the Definition of Career Development

When leaders engage with employees in candid conversations aimed at deepening their understanding of the individual, they frequently discover that the problem isn’t that these people lack ambition. Instead, it’s that we all have lacked the language. The concrete ways to talk about career development. The ways that aren’t inextricably connected with promotions, positions, and moves that don’t interest all employees.

Careers and development are far bigger than the traditional trajectory up the org chart. Many employees recognize that careers operate between and beyond the artificial markers of new positions. One’s current role can become a rich sandbox for continuous growth, as a result of reframing the conversation and introducing seven other dimensions that are deeply meaningful to people who may not want to go anywhere but would welcome the opportunity for growth in place.

Research I conducted for my new book, Promotions Are So Yesterday, suggests that there are seven other development dimensions that offer more interesting ways for employees to grow than the classic climb up the corporate ladder.

They include:

  • Contribution: Making a difference, being of service, or aligning with purpose
  • Competence: Building critical capabilities, skills, abilities, and expertise
  • Connection: Cultivating relationships, deepening networks, elevating visibility
  • Confidence: Enhancing confidence, certainty, and trust in one’s talents and abilities
  • Challenge: Stretching beyond what’s known and comfortable
  • Contentment: Finding satisfaction, ease, balance, and joy in one’s work
  • Choice: Exercising control, autonomy, flexibility, and decision-making authority

These seven dimensions offer leaders who are committed to ensuring that everyone grows the tools they need to facilitate meaningful development. Even with those who have little interest in promotions. For instance, a new role is not required to introduce interesting and meaningful challenges into someone’s work life. People don’t need a different title to expand their network and learn from and through different people. A position change isn’t a pre-requisite for changing up one’s work to offer greater value or contribution. Because employees don’t have to go anywhere to experience the powerful learning that comes along with making greater or more complex decisions.

And the good news is that these seven dimensions — unlike promotions — are completely within your control. You and the employee can agree upon countless ways to tap their interests, motivations, and ambitions with development opportunities that are available right within their current role.

So, if you’re a leader who measures your success by the growth of others, these seven dimensions will help you promote career development without promotions. Unlocking new possibilities may turn some ‘I’m good where I am’ responses into ‘I’m ready to get even better where I am!’

This post originally appeared on LeadershipNow.

Browse more articles on leadership and career development at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.

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Julie Winkle Giulioni

Julie Winkle Giulioni

Julie is a champion for workplace growth and development and works with executives and leaders to optimize the potential within their organizations.