Career Path

The Career Nomads Have Arrived

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison explains how companies can lean in to this new job-tenure trend.

It’s the “math problem” facing every business leader today: how to turn two into four, and four into eight.

The numbers refer to average job tenure: just over four years overall, and as low as one to two years for younger professionals. It’s the era of the career nomad who moves from opportunity to opportunity with increasing frequency. For them it’s all about learn and earn, make an impact, and move on.

This point was brought home humorously in an extreme example told to me over dinner by the CEO of a very large company, which hires hundreds of college interns each year. Three weeks into the internship, the CEO addressed the new class of interns. When it came time for questions, one of the interns stood up: “I just don’t know if this is working out for me. I don’t feel I am making an impact on anyone’s life.”

The CEO replied, “Maybe you should give it a little more time.”

Career development within the company should no longer be approached like a ladder.

Humor aside, the career nomad phenomenon shouldn’t be associated only with millennials. It’s happening at all levels, even in the most senior positions. In these days of low unemployment and higher turnover, don’t expect it to change any time soon.

While there’s no fighting the career nomad trend, business leaders can look for ways to extend that two-year job tenure to four years—then that four years to eight years, especially for high-potentials, the diamonds in the rough. These are the people who will make the most impact on the company (the 20 percent who accomplish the 80 percent) and whose learning and development ought to be the biggest priority. This group needs to be identified much earlier than in the past—then nurtured, mentored, and developed.

On any P&L, there is an enormous hidden cost: unwanted turnover. The reality is that it takes time for a new employee to “find the bathroom,” let alone navigate the entrenched, informal networks within their new employer. Given the learning curve associated with any job, it can take months before someone makes a real impact.

Career development within the company should no longer be approached like a ladder. It’s like a jungle gym, moving up and branching out. Here are four important considerations:

Screen for Learning Agility

This ability to apply past experiences and lessons learned to new challenges and opportunities is the No. 1 predictor of success. (I call it “knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.”) Learning agility should be identified and developed as early as possible, particularly among high-potentials whose desire to learn more, stretch, and grow can be accomplished within one company, with the right career development opportunities.

Create a Career Architecture

Give employees a view of a variety of roles throughout the organization. This can show how they can satisfy their career aspirations at one firm and extend their job tenure. The longer talented people stay, the more likely the organization will be to invest in their development.

Focus on the 70/20/10

Development comes from assignments and bosses, not the classroom. That’s the 70/20/10 rule of thumb, respectively, of learning on-the-job, learning from others (especially the boss), and formal training. Putting the 70 and the 20 together, shows the importance of the boss who take an interest in the development of his/her direct reports and giving them opportunities to learn and grow. 

Make Development a Leadership Priority

Don’t simply “outsource” development and mentoring to HR. Business leaders should be accountable for career development and mentoring, including to increase employee engagement, reduce turnover, and ensure employees progress in their careers.

As more talent is on the move, companies need to find ways to make the most of employees’ contributions while they’re on the job. Keeping people on the job a little longer, with real opportunities to learn and grow and make an impact, can be the win/win that satisfies career nomads and their employers.