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What's Your Next "Next"?

There’s a question that should be discussed between every manager and each member of their team. It’s something that I ask just about everyone I’ve hired, coached or mentored. 

What’s your next “next”? 

Essentially, this question is about looking two moves ahead in one’s career as a leader. While asking the question of “What’s next?” focuses individuals on their next promotion, asking about their next “next” focuses them on identifying the job that will come after their upcoming promotion. 

Having clarity about your next “next” actually forces you to work backwards. For example, a Marketing Director who ultimately wants to become a CMO may want their next role to focus on broadening their functional skills in marketing operations and product marketing, as well as strengthening their ability to collaborate with other departments. However, if that individual is interested in ultimately becoming a COO, they might consider pursuing opportunities to work more closely with sales, revenue operations and customer success in order to build deeper functional knowledge in the areas within the purview of a COO but outside of marketing. 

It may seem like common sense, but most people stumble when I ask them this question. Nonetheless, having clarity on one's next “next” will help them align their near-term career opportunities with their long-term career goals. 


Why is this so hard? 

Charting a path toward your next “next” requires that employee first achieves alignment with their manager on these goals. Oddly, this is a conversation that many employees and many managers seem to shy away from having. Why? Here are few examples I’ve encountered: 

  • Bubble-dwellers — The employee and/or their manager think only about the employee’s career within the context of their current organization. They fail to look outside of the “bubble” that is their current organization and contemplate the likelihood of working somewhere else in the future. 

  • Crachit and Scrooge — The employee and/or their manager (falsely) believe it is in the company’s best interests to limit employee advancement and marketability in order to retain employees and limit salary expectations. Therefore, the discussion about advancement is almost taboo. 

  • Ants in Your Pants — The employee may have a vision for their future role, but they are reluctant to share, or they are discouraged from sharing, out of concern they’ll be perceived as impatient or lacking humility.  

  • Annual Review Avoiders — The employee and/or the manager consider career-planning discussions as something that can occur only during the annual performance-review process (if ever). 

The above examples illustrate (albeit with a bit of humor) that, oftentimes, the conversation about career development is one where “it takes two to tango.” Employees and their managers can get caught up in this “dance” of both of them avoiding the topic altogether. While I encourage employees to take an active role whenever possible, I believe the onus is mostly on the manager to take the lead in this dance. 

On a more serious note, it’s important to point out that, oftentimes, the reason this conversation does not happen is because of the glass ceiling that exists. A recent national survey of K–12 ed-tech leaders found that only 30% of employees felt their company’s talent-development practices adequately supported the needs of historically marginalized groups. In these situations, the employee may desperately want to have conversations regarding their career path, and yet they are being excluded from consideration for advancement opportunities. 

As managers, it’s incumbent on us all to actively seek out and advocate for the individuals for whom the system was not built. When the deck is stacked against certain individuals, advancement opportunities may not be equitably available to them, nor are those individuals part of the discussions regarding possible candidates. Having to self-advocate in an inequitable environment represents a burden and a risk that no employee should have to bear. It’s up to the manager to be intentional about creating pathways and advocating for those individuals even before specific opportunities exist. 


Framing the conversation

Throughout my career as a manager, I’ve always felt strongly that cultivating talent is a responsibility (and a privilege) of the role. Supporting the professional advancement of my team members was something that benefited the employees and the company. Investing the time, money and energy in talent development generally resulted in team members who were highly motivated and invested in their work; they elevated the team because of the amount of “heavy lifting” they’d become capable of doing. When employee career growth is aligned with company goals, everyone wins. 

So, as a manager, how do you frame the conversation about the next “next” in a way that is supportive, safe and productive? The following approach has worked for me. Sometime early in my manager relationship with each individual—in some cases during the interview process—I’d have a conversation that goes something like this: 

I’d say, “I’m fairly certain that neither you nor I will retire from this company. I’m very happy here... and I'd like to see you continue to grow here for many years. But each of us will probably leave at some point, and that’s OK. So, while we’re both here, part of my job is to help you be successful and grow in your career. I’d love to have you here as long as we have a role that is a good fit and a good challenge for you. And, if you get to the point where you outgrow what the company has to offer you, I’d be delighted to help you find your next role in a company where you can continue your growth.” 

Then I’d pause… and observe a moment of surprise, disbelief and then excitement. 

I’d continue, “Really. If you trust me enough to invest yourself in joining my team, I’m also going to make a long-term investment in you, too. And that extends long past your time at our company.” 

Maybe this was unorthodox. Usually, it was pretty unexpected by the employee. But it’s true. And it led to some incredibly productive conversations about each employee’s next “next” and created the opportunity to map that out in a safe, supportive environment. It also gave the employee the confidence that there was someone truly rooting for them to succeed. 


Shared responsibility to live the plan

Getting alignment and creating a supportive environment regarding the employee’s next “next” is a fantastic start, but making it actionable is where the investment pays off… for everyone. 

I would often tell employees, “Let’s be clear about what kind of role you ultimately want to pursue, so that I can try my best to help you gain the necessary experience and knowledge. I’d like to be sure that, several years down the road, you’ll have the figurative—and literal—resume you need to get one step closer to earn the role you ultimately want… whether that exists at this company or not.”

One caveat: I’m not advocating for a “choose your own adventure” kind of approach to role definition. If the path toward an employee's next “next” calls for responsibilities or experiences that are outside of the scope of the company’s needs, or creates significant cross-functional role confusion, I do not recommend building a job description around the person for the purposes of retaining them. The key is to look for opportunities and experiences for that figurative resume that overlap with the company’s priorities. Bottom line, it needs to make sense for the business.

There may also be outside professional-development or peer groups that give exposure to the right kinds of skills. However, if the employee’s career ambitions have very little overlap with the company’s needs, it's important for the manager to be up front about that. Ultimately this may result in a conversation regarding a pathway to roles outside the company sooner rather than later. 


Why it matters

As I mentioned earlier, when company goals are aligned regarding employee growth, everyone wins. Having a team member who can step up and tackle increasingly complex and mission-critical work enables everyone around them to leverage their own skills and time more effectively. If you give employees some stretch assignments that are mapped to their broader career path, you’re typically going to find they are highly motivated, curious and committed to that work.

Therefore, if you buy into the idea that professional growth and advancement of employees will benefit the company as much as it benefits the individual, then it’s also in the company’s best interests to be thoughtful about how to support employee growth. Giving your high-potential employees stretch assignments and supporting their success is a win-win. However, it’s not enough just to put the pieces in place. Be vocal about your support! 

In a rather simplistic view, I would often sum it up by saying to employees, “My job is to help you to be successful. If I help you to do your job effectively and grow as a person and as a leader, I’ve done my job. Everything else takes care of itself.”

More specifically, my job as a manager is to provide employees with clear priorities, goals and expectations, give them the resources and space to do their job, give them permission to fail, and give them the feedback, constructive criticism and support they need in order to ultimately accomplish their professional responsibilities. If they’ve done all this and met the company’s expectations for the role… then I’ve done my job. 



Remember: Very few of us will retire from the organization where we currently work. However, while we’re here, there is truly a mutual benefit in investing in the upward career trajectories of employees by enabling them to do the most heavy lifting possible while they are with the company, and positioning them for success in their next role. 

If you’re struggling with how to have the next “next” conversation, or if you’re having difficulty charting the path toward that role, reach out to me directly. Let’s talk. 

Collin Earnst is founder and managing partner of the Ed-tech Leadership Collective, an organization focused on helping high-potential employees achieve the professional breakthroughs necessary for businesses to succeed. The Collective provides executive coaching as well as professional peer groups designed specifically for high-potential ed-tech employees at key points in their career.