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Career Insights

May 16, 2022

Career advancement often requires a map, and a guide

Dr. Dientje Francis-Lawrence

VP of Partnership Growth & Transformation

Success coaching works in higher ed and can help professionals thrive at work also

Ask anyone who has left their role recently, and you are very likely to hear some common themes. Actually, you may have experienced this yourself. Organizational psychologist and best-selling author Adam Grant calls it languishing — this feeling that is not quite burnout, but I would argue is the precursor. Fueling this is the need for “more”— more meaning in our roles, more meaning in what we do. To many, this represents career advancement; 63% of job resignations in 2021 were driven by this need for progression. At the same time, less than 10% of eligible workers use their employee education benefits. This paradox can likely be explained by a few variables, but I believe one principal issue remains fundamental: with so much choice for education, how do we choose our best path? How do we choose the path that will match our ultimate goal? How do we pick the path that will help pull us out of the languish?

Education benefits are increasingly a prime lever for recruitment, retention, and workforce development in today’s competitive labor market. They’ve been introduced or expanded at huge employers like Walmart, Amazon and Tysons Food. But it’s not enough to offer these benefits. We’ve noted in a previous article ways in which employers can remove the logistical and other barriers to their use: through C-suite support, paid tuition up front, and offering clear career paths.

I’m convinced another big part of the solution is success coaching. This approach, which is quite different from traditional academic tutoring, has been shown to improve retention and graduation rates in secondary education. It can also help employees overcome nonacademic roadblocks. So much of what influences us is what happens outside of our coursework. As we all have dealt with the downstream impact of the pandemic as well as the challenges of normal daily life, we’ve all felt the need for better support and guidance as we make decisions. Probably one of the biggest decisions we will make is selecting our degree of choice. Coaches provide clarity, guidance and structure so that we make the best choice possible — and when we do not, coaches can help us get back on track.

The role of success coaches

Success coaching has long been used in the academic setting — typically for adult learners, students who are underprepared, or those simply struggling to meet the academic demands of their education. In the academic setting, coaching typically involves setting clear goals to increase self-efficacy, troubleshooting barriers students face to help them build self-advocacy skills, and ultimately helping students navigate complex administrative systems to find the right resource to resolve issues. Along the way, coaches serve as accountability partners and sounding boards.They provide a safe space for students to be vulnerable in a way that they would not typically be with their academic advisor or professor.

The adult learner’s needs are not that different. In many ways, the working professional seeking to advance to their next role needs help navigating to the best learning path by an expert guide who is ‘on their side,’ so to speak. Many adults who do not have a college degree have tried at some point and are afraid of failing again, especially as they face social and financial challenges. Fear can prevent employees from returning to school. Students in academic settings also face this fear. Studies show that those who struggle academically often lack a sense of belonging in school, leading them to give up their college careers. Coaches can provide emotional support to help employees move beyond fear and feel supported.

In some ways, a coach affiliated with an employer may have a clearer understanding of the demands of the employee’s current job, as well as their potential career trajectory. This perspective may help coaches provide even more customized guidance and help employees juggle work and school more effectively. McDonald’s added coaching for employees and their families to its employee education program in 2018, rebuilding it into a model for other companies that want to increase the impact of their programs. The program is comprehensive, supporting employees with connections to programs ranging from high school equivalency certificates to MBAs, as well as one-on-one guidance via a custom app. We know that coaching has been linked to higher levels of satisfaction in the academic setting, and I would argue the same to be true in the work context.

Connecting coaching with career paths

In a recent study, most employees said they’re more likely to stay with an employer who supports their learning and career development, while two in five say they learn best when their employer is involved.

Helping employees take advantage of their existing education benefits may meaningfully increase companies’ ability to retain employees — a critical factor in today’s labor market.

But employers also recognize that education benefits – and wraparound supports like coaching — are valuable even in entry-level or low-skill jobs where long-term retention is not expected. Unlike traditional education benefits, which are tied to an employee’s career path at their current employer, this new generation of programs aims to help employees advance their skills and knowledge in any area. That approach is based on the belief that increasing education broadly across the workforce is good for society — and good for any business that wants to recruit and retain employees by showing that it cares about their professional advancement.

It also addresses a shortfall in current education benefits: A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review noted that while 38% of the adult U.S. population lacks a high school diploma, just 17% of employers’ current education spending is allocated to that group.

Coaching can play a pivotal role in helping employees attain the skills, certifications or degrees needed to advance their careers — whether at their existing firm or in another field entirely. The end result for employers: satisfied employees who make the most of their time on the job and are well positioned for what’s next. Maybe it’s time we leveraged this proven tool to help so many people who are looking for a way out of the languish to gain momentum in their careers again so they can thrive at work.

Dr. Francis-Lawrence is the Vice President and Global Head of Partnership Growth and Transformation at Kaplan.

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