Have you ever stopped to think about the various aspects and functions of a service and support organization? Can you just imagine the tremendous amount of responsibility support leaders have in their role? If I were to quickly make up a list, I would imagine that list would contain things like staffing, customer satisfaction, budgeting, strategic planning, tools, KPIs, and so much more.
Out of this massive list of projects, tasks, needs, and even topics you hear about most often at industry conferences like SupportWorld Live, I have noticed there is one topic that is overlooked: career development in a support organization. In my opinion, career development is, and should always be, on the top of the list on any leader’s clipboard. Not only do I see leaders steer the support ship into operational battle minimizing collateral damage (maintaining and managing SLAs, KPIs, outages, morale, CSAT, etc.), I just piled on a huge responsibility on leadership—having direct input and control of their employees’ careers. Not a big deal, nothing to worry about here, right?
Lay Down the Foundation
Let’s really just stop, pause, and think about what I just said. As a leader, you have direct impact on your staff and their career journey. That statement alone should scare the hell out of you, if you care about it. You must respect that power and not take it lightly. Now that I may have evoked some nervous energy as you read this, I bring you a life-line, piece of mind in that you can develop a program to make sure your staff is set up for success, and lay the foundation of career objectives and programs to guide staff during their career journey.
There are a few objectives you want to obtain in a career development program. You want to be able to mature your organization with operational effectiveness at all levels. You want to be able to create succession plans for the next generation of technical subject matter experts (SMEs), leaders, trainers, and more. By creating formal career path within support, you are more likely to reduce churn and attrition and retain top talent.
By creating formal career path within support, you are more likely to reduce churn and attrition and retain top talent.
There are three groups you want to target for a career development program, individual contributors (i.e., analysts, technicians, SMEs, QA, etc.), people managers (i.e., supervisors, team leads, managers), and a third category I will talk about later.
See the Growth
Individual contributors (ICs) are your lifeline to great support experiences for your customers. Most ICs start their careers in a support center environment. Most ICs are in their first corporate job with support, and/or first cube-world environment surrounded by performance reviews, metrics, processes, policies, and more. Many are right out of college looking to start paying back their student loans.
Let’s face it, a lot of costs go into recruiting a new employee. If you could take just 25 to 35% of the recruiting efforts and put them into career development, you will find that the return on investment means more engaged employees that see a future in their career growth within your department and your company as a whole.
You have to start off with an onboarding experience that will set up the IC for success. Too often, I see training cycles that may hit the mark on the technical side, but lack material in soft skills. Additionally, I see metrics and KPIs set month one for the new employees and are measured just as if they were a two-year seasoned professional. You need to adjust and have ramp-up periods to avoid the shock of taking live contacts and reduce the stress levels for new hires. This will pay off as you should see less attrition with less tenured ICs.
Try to stair-step the knowledge ICs learn, if at all possible. By creating check points in the onboarding process, you may find that your onboarding is actually a six-month period rather than a three-week training course. Meaning, continue to add knowledge as the IC grows within their role. Add additional layers of responsibilities, as an example, to further grow the IC, to include incremental raises. By compensating ICs for new knowledge, you are rewarding them in a tangible way because they are taking on more information and they become more valuable to tackle an array of issues.
As the individual grows, title can come into play. It is very interesting when you talk to various groups on their perspective of title. I can say many individuals will take on a more important title without any compensation just so they have the title. However, that can cause some confusion if you don’t properly document the different expectations and tasks each title should bring. Therefore, you will need to take some time to work on job descriptions that can set apart what the differences are between each level. This should be associate facing so they know what areas to work on, what level of competencies to obtain, and what tasks and knowledge to obtain for their growth.
As you map out the career paths for the ICs they will run into a fork in the career road. They will either remain as an individual contributor and continue down the path as a SME, or, they turn to the people manager route and start their new chapter in their career journey as a supervisor or team lead, eventually leading them to higher leadership roles. You will need to schedule recurring times throughout the year to solely talk about their career aspirations and what you can do to support them.
Take Your Jacket Off and Stay a While
What I find very surprising is that, even though some organizations have solid, robust IC programs for career development, those companies may lack a formal, thought-out path for front-line leaders. This, in my opinion, is a big gap. As a senior leader, you must always look several years ahead. Things happen; people come and go. To minimize the impact of key people leaving your organization, leadership planning is a must.
An effective way to plot out your best talent is to do a talent review. Simply search on the internet for dozens of examples on how to conduct these talent reviews. The point is, do it. As you assess the talent pool, your future leaders will emerge. One great outcome of the talent review is that it will help show you where and who to focus on, who to grow, and provide access and opportunities to learning and hands-on experiences to help in their career growth.
Formal training is also essential for a successful people manager. Let’s face it, you and I don’t know everything. There are experts in this area. From talent insights, to HR training, leadership training, coaching and feedback training, etc., there are a lot of leadership training topics new managers could use in their tool box to help them succeed with their team. Senior leaders should take stock on topics and areas where your management teams need help, and consider partnering with HR to improve the leadership quality of your future leaders. Retaining your top talent is a goal.
WIIFM: What’s In It for Me?
Now that you have laid out a great structure for your ICs and managers, did you forget anything? The last group to target a career development program, is YOU! Even senior leaders, who plot career development programs and paths, need a plan themselves. Never forget about your growth and your own training needs. Like a good general who always waits till the last troop gets in the chow line before they do, many senior leaders often make sure they take care of their teams, but forget to put the focus, from time to time, on themselves.
This should not be seen as a self-centered act, by the way. A senior leader is also an employee, who appreciates praise, recognition, and new challenges for the good of the whole organization. Allow yourself the time and opportunity to refresh on current processes, team building ideas, and more. One day you will want to move on to the next “thing” and will want to make sure your successor is setup for success.
Sum of All Fears
As a leader, you have direct impact on the livelihood of your team members, and that it is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Know that the work you put into cultivating your teams to a more mature state within their career journey is an extremely satisfying moment for you.
Using the onboarding experience as part of an overall growth strategy sets up the new employee for success right away. Create stair-stepping processes and evaluations along the way in their growth to more complex knowledge and work challenges. Use job descriptions to showcase the difference in roles and responsibilities. Most importantly, you need to know your team’s goals and aspirations if you are going to execute on a successful career development plan.
Regardless if an individual wants to remain as an individual contributor, or a manager, use formal tools, techniques, and classes for their continued growth and learning. Ask for expert help in areas where you feel the organization can improve. In the end, you may one day be working side by side with some of those future leaders whom you manage today.
Get tips to avoid the pitfalls of being a new leader at Richard’s SupportWorld Live session, New Supervisors and The Dreaded Firsts.
Richard Sykora has more than 25 years’ experience in customer service and call center operations. He has managed both national and global operations and has been a speaker at industry conferences and user groups, leading participants in industry best practices. Richard is Senior Manager, Support Operations at Blackbaud, and is Lean Practitioner Certified. He is a volunteer and currently Chair of ReStart Career Development program, assisting those in a career transition and helps connect participants’ natural skills to jobs and careers they were built for with purpose. Connect with Richard on