Talent Management and Acquisition

Speed Read: Talent – Careers, Development and Succession in a Changing Landscape

  • January 19, 2021


Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, talent was already firmly at the top of the agenda for businesses and HR leaders. The topic of careers was attracting increased attention, and companies were grappling the logistics of digital transformation. The crisis has acted only to accelerate these trends, and the emergence of a new business context has sparked a fundamental rethink of the concept of ‘careers’ and ‘career development’ in many organisations. Our survey found three fifths (60%) of organisations are becoming more active in supporting career development for everyone.

What’s Driving the Evolution in Careers, Development and Succession?

There is an opportunity for HR to step up and play a business-critical role in equipping organisations for the future, to rethink strategies and decide how to best utilise emerging technologies. This research is designed to guide thinking by examining the business drivers for new talent strategies, assessing current and emerging practice, and making recommendations about how to proceed.

Key drivers influencing how companies are thinking about talent and careers:

  • Future skills and the availability of talent is a key concern for the whole executive team, not just HR.
  • Organisations need to be prepared for an anticipated workforce shift as digital transformation strategies fundamentally reshape the nature of work and skills required.
  • Companies need to develop new capabilities, for example in data and digital, but may face difficulty hiring in those skills because of global demographic shifts.
  • Organisations must consider their responsibility for reskilling and redeploying employees at scale who are displaced due to technological chance or the impact of recession.
  • Companies are increasingly recognising the need to embed objectives around D&I into how they approach career development and succession in order to attract and retain diverse talent.
  • The pandemic has underscored the need for fluidity of talent. Strategies for career development need to incorporate creative ways for employees to develop new skills without moving to a different permanent position.
  • Access to new technology is improving companies’ understanding of their workforces’ skills and talent, allowing them to be more transparent about internal opportunities.
  • Career development is a key element of EVP and many companies are rethinking their strategies in response to employee engagement data that shows people lack clarity around how to build a career in the organisation. Mercer’s 2020 Talent Trends research found that one in three employees who are satisfied in their current role are still planning to leave due to lack of career options.
  • Organisations have to manage a tension between employees’ desire for clear, transparent career paths and the reality that career progression is often messy and unpredictable in practice.

Key themes in this report:

  • Skills are the critical currency around careers today, as new technology allows career progression and learning to be increasingly decoupled from specific jobs.
  • Many organisations will need to put in place purposeful initiatives around developing, reskilling and redeploying their people as a result of the broad workforce shift that is expected over the next few years and is likely to be accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis.
  • Career development needs to be a balanced partnership between individuals, their line managers, the organisation and HR.
  • Career development and talent management should be interconnected, but often aren’t well enough integrated in practice.

See the full version of this report for detailed insights and definitions of careers and how they develop.


  1. Career development should be more effective at supporting the future skills needs of the organisation. However, just overa quarter (28%) of survey respondents consider their organisation’s career activities to be fairly or highly effective at supporting future resourcing and skills needs.

  2. Developing current and future leaders remains the top priority. Of those surveyed, 72% listed growing future senior leaders as a top-three objective for their career development activities. Three fifths (61%) of survey respondents have specific career development strategies for current potential senior leaders or ‘high potential’ staff, and nearly half (46%) have specific career strategies for early career entrants and trainees.

  3. Developing future-ready skills is seen as important but isn’t necessarily translating into action. Despite meeting future skill needs being the second highest scoring priority, 85% of respondents also agree or strongly agree that career development activities are not sufficiently focused on future skills. Providing targeted career development for critical specialists also remains a low priority: only 28% have specific strategies for senior specialist function or technical staff. While focusing on future leaders is essential, HR must make sure their businesses also prioritise the critical technical and commercial skills needed to execute new strategies.

  4. Career development processes should integrate with talent and succession. If we think of succession planning as a top down process and career development as bottom-up, they should join up. However, the reality is that they often don’t. Only 19% of survey respondents said their approach to succession planning is fairly or highly effective in developing future strategic capabilities required by the business, and only 22% said the same for preparing potential successors for new roles. Recommendations for succession planning include focusing on roles that are critical for the future of the business, having relevant data at hand, and developing methods for flagging undervalued talent.

  5. D&I objectives have not translated into differential career strategies. Just one fifth (19%) of survey respondents have a specific careers strategy for underrepresented or disadvantaged groups of people. Only mentoring (provided by 31%) came out as a significant specific resource.

  6. Structure career paths risk creating a perception of certainty that doesn’t exist. Career ladders can suggest upward linear progression, when sometimes it involves taking a sideways move or even changing role entirely. In developing frameworks companies can spend significant time building tools that are little used. Some suggest that providing broad outlines of the types of career people could pursue and highlighting the required skills and attributes can be helpful. Others have defined specialist career paths that offer an alternative to progression via general management or a significant line role. For example, Avanade has recently launched a Technical Leadership Career Path which can lead to the position of Distinguished Engineer. Some organisations, such as BT, are developing structured pathways for technical roles to redeploy people whose skills are becoming obsolete to technological advancements.

  7. Communication can be hit-and-miss. Our survey found that many organisations are failing to adequately communicate their commitment to career development to employees, even though tackling this can enhance the employer brand and boost employee engagement.

  8. A failure to evaluate the impact of actions taken. Only a third (33%) of survey respondents’ organisations evaluate the effectiveness of career development activities on business outcomes.

  9. Good intentions do not always translate into sustainable actions. HR has a tendency to be fascinated by shiny new things, but the follow-through can be patchy. Our survey found that half of respondents (48%) agree that a lack of clear accountability or continuity of attention in HR is a barrier to successful career development. Ideally, initiatives are championed by the CEO and CHRO, who continue to see them through over time.

  10. HR sees development as a partnership between individual and employer. We find that HR understands that it is unrealistic to expect employees to manage their own development without support or guidance. Our survey shows that only a quarter of respondents said career development was primarily the responsibility of the individual employee, while half (50%) saw it as a partnership. The question then becomes: what do we mean by ‘partnership’?

Line Managers: Organisations expect a lot of their line managers regarding career development. Yet, 87% of survey respondents see them as a significant barrier to the successful career development of their team. It’s concerning then that only 14% said giving managers the skills and understanding to support staff was a key objective of their approach to career development. Similarly, only 14% provide mandatory, and 37% optional training for line managers in effective career development support. If we really are expecting line managers to be the ‘superheroes’ of career development we need to select managers who are motivated, skilled in career development and a role model in the right behaviours. We must also provide adequate training and make sure line managers understand the organisation’s strategy as well as the opportunities available. It is crucial to evaluate their performance and reward them where appropriate.

Alternatives to line managers include:

  • Managers-Once-Removed (MOR)
  • Decoupling performance and development
  • Career development workshops
  • Professional or volunteer career coaches
  • Mentoring
  • Communities of Practice
  • Peer networks

Individuals: Managing a career is not a skill that comes naturally for most people yet few organisations provide career reviews at specific life stages, such as midcareer reviews (3% of our sample). Individuals need information about the skills the organisation needs to develop its strategy, the types of careers employees can expect to have and what options are available to accumulate the job and learning experiences required to develop those skills. Our findings show that career development for all employees is relative low touch compared to a more intense and personalised approach for current and high potential future leaders. Support for professional staff focuses on skills, competency frameworks, career pathways and external secondments while early entrants and trainees are supported through organisationally facilitated work experiences and development programmes.

HR: Given that career development appears to be rising up the HR agenda, we were surprised to find that in only two thirds of organisations is there someone within the HR senior team who has clear responsibility for career development policy and activities. There is also no clear consensus where HR responsibility sits. Our survey found organisations are evenly split: 41% report that responsibility sits with L&D while 40% have career development sitting under talent management. These results prompt the question of whether an organisation can truly say it takes careers and reskilling seriously if there is no one at a senior level in HR who has responsibility for career development as the major part of their role. It would be akin to saying that pay and incentives are important, but we don’t have a senior person who’s accountable for Reward.

The Impact of Technology and Evolving Working Practices on Talent and Careers

The biggest development in the field of talent and careers over the last few years is an explosion of technology platforms and solutions. Career development is a multi disciplinary undertaking and in the past it has often proved difficult for HR to join the dots effectively between the different parts of the system. It is now within reach for organisations to connect different elements of the employee experience through technology. This includes using artificial intelligence to infer people’s skills, recommend learning opportunities, and connect people with jobs and projects that meet their career aspirations.

New technologies put the tools for career planning, learning and internal mobility in employees’ hands, supporting the philosophy of individuals owning their development. Here we explore what some of these emerging technology solutions can do, and the main purposes they serve:

  • Providing dynamic, personalised tools for individuals to assess and plan their career. For example, Fuel50 provides a suite of tools to suggest personalised career paths based on the skills, experience and qualifications of employees, and real-life data of career tracks pursued by others in the organisation. It can also flag relevant internal vacancies or short-term assignments.

  • Connecting the Learning & Development and Careers agendas. New technologies are addressing what one interviewee described as the “black hole” between talent and learning, by improving the connection between opportunities, learning and progression. IBM’s Your Learning platform, for example, nudges people to develop skills relevant to hot future roles identified through strategic workforce planning and suggests roles to apply for.

  • Increasing the transparency of skills in the organisation. Two-fifths of HR leaders say they don’t know what skills they have in their workforce, according to Mercer’s Talent Trends research. Now, vendors like IBM and Degreed are building skills taxonomies that can infer the skills that people have and identify gaps for development. Whereas in the past, building a skills architecture would have been a resource-heavy undertaking, tools such as Burning Glass crowdsource skills by looking at millions of jobs posted every day.

  • Improving the connection between career development and deployment by supporting internal mobility. A 2019 study by Deloitte found that 65% of respondents said it was easier to find a job outside the company than inside. The emergence of ‘talent marketplaces’ such as Gloat and Fuel50 is helping address this, enabling managers to openly advertise permanent positions alongside short term assignments and projects. Careers develop through experiences on the job and companies looking to build new capabilities are increasingly encouraging employees to work on projects and build new skills alongside their permanent roles. Google and Roche encourage their people to spend 20% of their time on development activities.

  • Marketplaces can incentivise employees to keep the information they provide the company about their skills and aspirations up to date. However, a limitation is that where career progression requires an individual to do a role they have never done before it is hard to see how systems that make matches based on past behaviour or identify adjacencies to the current role will be effective. Therefore, a combination of succession planning, managed moves and career coaching is recommended.

  • Make it easier to access support such as mentoring and coaching. Tools such as Gloat and Fuel50 can also be used to match people with mentors or connect employees with someone already doing the job they’re interested in. The low cost per employee of deploying these tools means it’s increasingly possible to offer them at scale.

  • Better management information and analytics. New tools give managers better information about their teams and allow them to access talent pools that historically would have been invisible.

A growing organisational trend is the wider adoption of flexible ways of getting work done through projects and Agile teams. Changes to working practices go hand in hand with technological developments as systems enable projects and short-term assignments to be openly advertised and these, in turn, are delivered in project-based teams.

As organisations across industries are becoming more digitally enabled, they are frequently adopting Agile working practices and methodologies for getting work done. Agile is a project management methodology centred around the idea of iterative development, where requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organising cross-functional teams.

It enables organisations to be more customer-centric, to reduce time-to-market and to respond rapidly to changing requirements. Agile organisations are run as networks of teams which come together around a specific task or mission.

Performance management and career development are also handled differently in Agile organisations:

  • The role of the line manager in career development is often decoupled from day-to-day work
  • Work is done in time-bound ‘sprints’ with team members organised in project teams (sometimes called ‘squads’)
  • Squads have a coach who’s responsible for facilitating and guiding the team, and removing obstacles to productivity
  • Individuals might work across multiple project teams simultaneously
  • Team members with similar skill sets or professional affiliations come together in ‘chapters’
  • Chapter leads are responsible for learning and professional development across their chapter.

Agile has many similarities with the professional services model of career development, which is gaining ground across a broader range of companies as project-based work becomes the norm. In professional services, line management and career development are decoupled. Performance is evaluated by a person’s peers and the engagement manager on the projects they work on. Progression and career development are determined by a career manager, who does not typically work with the individual day-to-day.

Some organisations are using other ways to detach career development from the organisational hierarchy. For example, Tesco looks at job families that span functions, such as project management. For many organisations, this also means rethinking performance management processes by moving towards greater transparency, ongoing conversations and 360-degree feedback.

Developing an Integrated System for Career Development

It is a core belief at CRF that people processes should not operate in isolation: it’s important to think about talent and careers as part of an integrated system, taking into account the wider context of the organisation, its business strategy, culture and alignment with other people processes. We have developed a model – below – which summarises the key elements to consider in creating an effective career development strategy.

Integrated Career Model

The model is designed to be an ‘aide-memoire’. Questions to consider when
reviewing your current practice against the model include:

  • What elements of the career system are not working as effectively as we would like?
  • Which parts are not as well interconnected as they could/should be?
  • Are we clear how business strategy and workforce planning translate into career development priorities?
  • Do we use the same language to discuss and describe people in different parts of the system?
  • Are top-down talents and succession processes well-integrated with bottom-up career activities?
  • How could we improve the support we provide people to develop their careers?


  • Driven by the business strategy
    The business strategy drives choices around careers, and it is important to make sure people understand these connections. This means not only articulating the future direction of the business, but also giving suggestions and guidance about where employees could invest in their development to stay relevant.

  • Consistent with the organisation culture and leadership behaviours
    The most developmental organisations have talent development built into their corporate DNA. Senior leaders visibly drive talent processes – with appropriate support from HR – and managers are rewarded for developing talent.

  • The career deal is clearly articulated
    The careers strategy should clearly define what the career deal is, who is responsible for what, and how it will be delivered. It needs to both meet the business demand for numbers and skills of people, and support organisational values.

  • Alignment with other people processes
    Career processes and interventions need to integrate with key people and business processes. To best align all parts, it is important to consider strategic workforce planning, talent acquisition and succession planning, learning and development, developmental experiences, job design and performance and reward. For a detailed explanation of these points please see our full report.

  • Enablers
    • Information on careers: There can be value in sharing information about the broad careers journeys an individual might consider across an organisation. Providing intel on skills that are in short supply, or future skills the organisation needs can also help people decide what skills they should develop to stay relevant.
    • Access to support: Often, people need advice from others, whether that’s a career professional, volunteer coach, members of a Community of Practice, or a mentor, on how to develop their career. Access can be having a conversation, but it can also mean a mentor opening a door for someone to unlock a new career experience.
    • Communications: It’s important to engage people so they understand the career deal and know how to make the best use of the resources available.
    • Technology: Do your systems allow you to gather and maintain the information you need in terms of skill levels and aspirations of the workforce? Can you access reporting and analytics, and search the data in real-time?
    • Developing capability to support careers: How do you train managers to help them in other ways to have good career conversations? Do we need to invest in upskilling HR to provide career counselling internally? How should we equip individuals to manage their own careers?

  • Evaluation of business outcomes
    It’s important to evaluate the impact of interventions against business outcomes, and to gather feedback in order to adjust and improve the process. The process should be defined up-front. Some considerations:
    • What business outcomes would we expect to achieve, were we to deliver against our objectives?
    • What measures would tell us that we are moving in the right direction?
    • Which stakeholders will be most critical in determining whether the system is delivering business value?
    • Where do we need to make the biggest improvements?


  1. Focus on developing the future capabilities required to execute new strategies. Ensure the outputs of the business strategy and workforce plan feed directly into talent and career development processes.

  2. Clarify the purpose of investing in career development. Each objective will require different solutions and will mean targeting resources in different ways.

  3. Develop a common language for talent. Consider a framework, model or language for assessing and developing talent to be used by all involved stakeholders.

  4. Clarify the career deal. Be clear about how responsibilities are shared between the individual, their manager and HR; how the deal is differentiated for different populations; and the support available.

  5. Weigh up whether your expectations around line managers supporting career development are realistic and backed up by training and support.

  6. Clarify HR’s responsibility for delivering career development – make sure there is someone sufficiently senior in HR who’s responsible for careers.

  7. Connect the talent supply chain, and make sure all elements focus on identifying and developing future skills.

  8. Focus on experience as a platform for development. Communicate the importance of experiences for career progression and the opportunities available to employees.

  9. Develop supporting policies. Do you need to redesign jobs or working practices to open up opportunities for people to learn from on-the-job experiences?

  10. Explore how you can integrate new technology into your talent agenda and take advantage to deliver personalised support at scale.

  11. Success in career development hinges on having an organisation culture that supports development. Both HR and business leaders should lead by example.

  12. There is no shortage of good ideas, but one of the barriers to success is a lack of sustained follow-through. Choosing to do a few things well and sustaining effort may be a better approach.

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