Challenging Old-School Career Path Practices

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Today, the early-stage career professional wants to know their career path potential on day one of any working relationship. You can see this in the questions they ask during the interview process or within the first few weeks of employment: What development opportunities will there be? What do I have to do to move higher within the organization and when will it happen? How do I get a seat at the decision-making table? How can I become a partner within the practice?

Thirty years ago, a financial professional would not ask these questions so early into employment. In fact, today’s boomer generation or late-stage career professional may find these questions disrespectful and unwarranted. Around today’s workplace, you might hear some of the following sentiments: You’re lucky to have this opportunity. You haven’t even got this job yet and you want more already. When I was your age, we had to work for years before any upward movement was discussed or considered. We worked till 9 p.m. and on weekends, and your generation can barely make it to 5 p.m. You must pay your dues first; demonstrate your abilities; learn from those around you, and then we’ll see what the future may hold.

Whether a job candidate or brand-new employee, early-stage career professionals often share expressions with us such as: What does it matter what they did; that was then, and this is now. Why would they be so foolish to work till 9 p.m. and on weekends? These older people can’t get out of their own way; we could help them so much if they would just listen to us. They are living in a world that no longer exists; they are inefficient and have a poor understanding of technology.

No one viewpoint is right. Both early-stage and late-stage career professionals could learn a little by listening, stepping into each other’s shoes, realizing they can learn from one another, and always communicating with respect.

Changes to Expectations, Work Ethic, and Priorities

Let’s face it—much has changed over the years.

The younger generations’ expectations are different. What’s wrong with drive and wanting to know what they need to accomplish in order to get a seat at the table? Just because boomers and Gen X likely had to wait years before advancement opportunities doesn’t mean it is wrong for young people today to want more. Perhaps we all just wish we had that opportunity when we were their age.

Sometimes leadership may need to adjust the expectations of early-stage career professionals; they may be unrealistic, but conversations about opportunity and expectations are in fact critical early in the process. If there isn’t a good match, employers will save thousands in training and credentialing dollars and candidates will not waste time working in the wrong place for them.

The definition of work ethic has changed, as has “work” itself. To Gen Y and Gen Z, work is a thing you do, not a place that you go. In some ways, the COVID environment has proven their point. When the pandemic hit, the financial planning profession figured out how to work remotely. We had to trust each other a little more without clocking-in and clocking-out. Perhaps if we begin to measure progress more on specific outcomes and less on time—whether hours each day/week or years before upward movement—we could all benefit.

People’s priorities have changed. Compensation is always one element of people’s needs but flexibility in today’s workforce has a higher priority than it did years ago. Many people place freedom of hours and workplace location at a premium to salary and compensation. Technology has afforded this as a possibility. Obviously, some careers require a constant onsite presence but many careers in the financial planning profession do not. Thinking “it’s always been this way” doesn’t equate to how it should be today.

Prevalent Misunderstandings Within the Workforce Today

Late-stage career professionals focusing only on the differences in the younger generations. “When I was your age…”. Gen Y and Gen Z do not connect with this at all. It sounds parental and all they see are dinosaurs who are clueless about today’s world. Now, there’s nothing wrong with sharing your history, story, and experiences. The younger generations should have the respect to listen; however, you then need to transition from your historical perspective to the reality of the present.

“Oh those darn millennials…” First, millennials hate to be called millennials due to many unverified negative connotations. Gen Y has great worth and we must minimize stereotyping people. Many often talk negatively about “millennial loyalty” and that they skip around from one job to the next. Historically this is true regardless of generation. The highest turnover always happens during the early-career stage, no matter the generation. It is not unique to Gen Y.

Early-stage career professionals demonstrating a lack of respect for late-stage career professionals. Dismissing mid- and late-stage career professionals by not listening or making assumptions is not prudent. These people have experience and wisdom from which you can grow. Yes, young people have new and creative ideas of great worth; but dismissing those around you as dinosaurs is not only disrespectful, you are also missing out on great opportunities for both parties to learn.

Avoiding discussion and just quitting; worse still, ghosting your employer and firm is definitely a poor decision. This behavior is particularly rude and doesn’t breed any positive PR for your future. The employer will have nothing positive to say about you should anyone seek a reference and, burning bridges is most certainly a pitfall to avoid in life. Critical conversations are difficult by their very nature but they should not be avoided.

Best Practices

Develop growth paths that reflect today’s profession. No matter the size of the firm, you must create future paths for top performers. The cost of not doing so is the loss of great talent being recruited away by companies that do promote growth. Build your bench for sustainability. You must be able to address their questions, understanding you can’t make guarantees. Just paint a picture of the potential path and create clarity on expectations for movement from one role to the next, allowing them to see a way forward.

Consider what is needed for each role in your company: skills, mindset, outcomes, performance factors, credentials, and experience. Many people focus on years of service when instead, you should focus on how experience is demonstrated. Just because someone puts the time in, doesn’t mean he or she has the experience. Be prepared to answer an associate asking why it takes x years to get to the next position. Consider if outcomes are a more crucial measurement than time.

Sometimes the years do matter, but as we consider growth paths within the planning profession, we have an opportunity to rethink, refocus, and perhaps pivot. Whether we are talking about career paths or daily hours worked, we likely do need to make some adjustments on the balance of old-school time requirements in a role to new-school outcome-based requirements. If an associate accomplishes all expectations and more each week, does it really matter if they did it in five eight-hour days? If an associate accomplishes all desired outcomes in three years rather than five, do they need the extra two years before being offered upward movement?

Communicate. Communication is talking and listening. Have critical conversations. As an eager early-stage career professional, ask about opportunities; don’t wait for your boss to bring it up and don’t quit because you are afraid to ask. If you are a late-stage career professional, be approachable; listen and share with your younger colleague your firm’s needs and the realities of upward movement. Be excited that you have an individual on the team who has drive and wants more; that is a much better scenario than a complacent team member who is doing the least amount possible. Everyone should regularly meet, report progress, and discuss a personal path of development.

Learn from each other. Establish mentoring moments to impart the wisdom and knowledge from the mid- or late-stage professionals to the early-stage professionals. Be prepared to answer questions of “why” to all things you do and expect from Gen Y. Without the answer, it may make no sense, and “because I said so” is not a response.

Establish an idea incubator so new professionals know they have a voice and can share their brilliance with others in the firm. Their ideas may not always be feasible, but they should always feel heard.

Change and growth are mandatory. Organizations and people must be agile and able to pivot when change happens, which is more rapid than ever. Complacency, avoiding change, and being stagnant can no longer exist if one wants to thrive.

Become self-aware and seek to understand others. Great teams are unified by vision, beliefs, and effective communication, but each team member is unique. If you serve in a leadership role, get to know each individual and their life and career priorities. As a leader, commit to helping the younger generation; prepare them, position them for growth and greatness, and support them in their goals.

Bottom Line

Late-stage career professionals should challenge old-school practices. People are essential to the success of your business, and you must decrease turnover. Regularly discussing expectations and offering opportunities will make your journey to your ultimate practice that much faster, less costly, and more enjoyable. 

Early-stage career professionals should seek to understand by asking questions. Learn from those around you. Be realistic on the value you bring to an organization. Consistently demonstrate your abilities as a high performer, effectively communicate with others, and earn your way to your ultimate desired role

Sarah E. Dale and Krista S. Sheets are partners at Performance Insights (, where they focus on helping financial professionals increase results through wiser practice management and people decisions.