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Will People Enable or Block Your Career Advancement?

Bill Howatt  Bill Howatt
Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance

This op-ed was originally published in The Globe and Mail on January 8, 2019.

You wake up one morning and decide that you’d like to advance your career. You want to get yourself in a position where you have more authority and more influence on the direction of your organization.

One challenge for getting from where you are to where you want to be is other people. Typically, to advance your profile within an organization, you need to be viewed as having the potential to lead others, which can be somewhat subjective and riddled with bias.

What’s always within your control is self-awareness of what you want, why you want it, and what you’re prepared to learn and do. The most successful leaders begin their journey by being good students and focusing on learning.

Humility allows a developing leader to be open and want to obtain new knowledge and skills. Three tools that can assist a developing leader are mentoring, leadership development training and coaching.

Being clear on what each is and how to leverage it can help you look for opportunities within the organization as well as individually. Any leader, regardless of where they are on their career path, can benefit from these tools.


A process where someone with a proven track record in a subject area is willing to share their tacit knowledge (what they learned from their experience) to assist a developing leader to shorten their learning curve. Good mentoring can help a developing leader learn from others’ mistakes and experiences. Mentoring is about having two-way conversations and sharing knowledge and experiences; it’s sometimes confused with coaching, so it’s beneficial to not assume a mentor has the knowledge and skills to coach. Mentoring is often informal but can also be structured with set expectations, times and knowledge areas to be shared and discussed over an established period.

Leadership Development

The process through which information is transferred, with a primary focus on knowledge and skill development. This training can be online – through self-study or blogs – or in a classroom. Many organizations see leadership development as personalized medicine, meaning the knowledge and skills each leader requires is different. In their eyes, putting all leaders through the same five-course curriculum may not make sense or be an effective use of resources.

The process starts with evaluating the subject’s gaps against the organization’s defined leadership behaviours and core competencies required for success. The goal is to close any of these gaps first, then evaluate any foundational leadership skill gaps that they would benefit from addressing. These would include how to correct behaviour, deal with conflict and give feedback. Leadership development needs to be clear on its benefits and purpose as well as how success will be measured, so both the leader and employer can see the value in investing time and money.


A process that can be defined as one of discovery and is personalized to the leader’s needs. Coaching is growing in popularity among human resources leaders as a leadership-development strategy. Typically, HR leaders contract external coaches because they’re trained and certified. External coaches also come without an agenda, don’t get disrupted by organizational priorities and are focused on the task at hand. A typical coaching process looks something like this.

  • Discovery: Setting expectations with input from the developing leader’s manager. This ensures that the leader is ready and open to be coached, matches them with their coach to ensure a good fit, establishes goals for coaching and what will define success, obtains clarity on the length of the coaching process and the amount of access to the coach, and completes discovery assessments, such as a 360-degree feedback to uncover any blind spots.
  • Process: The coaching process can be done in-person or using a virtual model that’s more flexible, because technology now makes coaching easier to fit in around busy schedules. The coaching process is intentional, and the focus is on achieving a defined goal. Coaching can help hold leaders accountable, as well as provide a confidential forum to share thinking and a place to solve problems, make decisions and develop leadership skills.
  • Evaluation: Coaching is a process with a defined objective. It’s beneficial for the leader to understand how they will evaluate the success of a coaching initiative.

When choosing one of the above, it’s beneficial to be clear on the why, what and how each could help. It’s best not to assume all three are the same. Each has a purpose and benefit, and it’s possible for a leader to be engaged in a program that includes all three. Having clarity on each can help developing leaders be more aware and proactively seek the right type of opportunity.

No cookie-cutter program will meet every leader’s needs. That’s why it’s beneficial for developing leaders to not assume that there’s one formula for everyone, instead being open and aware that each tool can be invaluable for a leader’s development and effectiveness.

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