Although I'm an entrepreneur at heart, my career hasn't followed a straight line. I built a sports tour business that took in millions of dollars in revenue. One collapsed deal in 2010, however, and I lost not only my career but also my savings and house. Failure forced me to rethink everything.

Upheaval isn't the only reason someone might rethink their career, and that's important to recognize as a leader. People find themselves at a career crossroads every day. What you offer could make the difference between keeping employees or losing them to competitors. 

One of the best and easiest ways to convince team members to stick with you for the long haul is through career paths. They won't--and shouldn't--all look the same, but they'll help employees envision a future with your company.

One thing that can give small-business owners pause is a feeling of limitation. Growing businesses often are so busy trying to get external factors figured out--sales, vendors, distribution--that internal considerations take a backseat. If leaders don't know how they're going to make payroll, how can they even worry about two years from now?

That's Catch-22 thinking, though. If your great idea takes off next year, you'll need capable employees to carry out your plan and keep pace with company growth. While your growth may not be steady or consistent, you can't downplay employees' importance in continuing that growth. That means you have to focus on your employees' growth, too.

A career path doesn't necessarily mean lots of money or a bloated organizational chart. There are options you can offer employees, such as:

Horizontal Growth

It's important to know what your employees are motivated by. Some hope to earn a specific title; others simply want to keep learning. For those who need constant intellectual stimulation--and have a variety of talents--lateral moves can be perfect. Shifting to new roles that demand different skills and offer a fresh understanding of your industry can revitalize an employee's love for your company--and their career. 

This was big for me when I worked for a company. As a consultant, I knew I had to learn to sell if I wanted to be a leader. I gained some time in business development that allowed me to develop sales skills. 

Key question to ask: Which department fascinates you, besides your own?

Professional Education

For any employee, learning from external experts can boost their ability to do their job. But that goes double for long-term employees who feel they've maxed out their growth opportunities internally--if they've set the standard, who do they learn from?

Create a budget to send these employees to conferences, workshops, and seminars. The new ideas and industry insights they glean can be brought back and implemented by them--it's a win-win for the entire company.

Key question to ask: Where would you like to deepen your knowledge?

Networking Opportunities

Other team members, particularly in sales and business development, may want access to your contact list. Commit to helping these employees boost their networking skills by taking them to mixers or introducing them to potential mentors. These are the people on your team who are fueled by relationships; they'll not only gain new perspectives, they may also spot opportunities to partner or grow that your company's overlooked.

Key question to ask: Whose career do you most admire?

Major Projects

Some ambitious types on your team would jump at any opportunity to boost their résumés--not necessarily to leave you, but to feel accomplished. For these employees, giving them ownership of a big project gives them a goal to sink their teeth into. Great options for growing companies include launching and running a blog, managing the company's social media, or creating an onboarding program for new hires as the company expands.

Key question to ask: What gives you professional FOMO (fear of missing out)?

Leadership Outlets

I couldn't avoid the elephant in the room: promotions. While a growing company has no need for three layers of leadership, your most promising leaders will eventually be needed in leadership roles; you can't do everything yourself. (Note that I said "most promising leaders," not highest performers--they aren't necessarily the same thing.)

If you're segmented into departments, you'll need department heads; if you have account teams, team leads will keep your ducks in a row. Think about where problems will arise or growth will stagnate without a focused person in place.

Key question to ask: Do you want to lead others?

My career path wasn't a straight line; yours probably wasn't, either. It's not realistic to expect your employees to fall into the most convenient roles for you over the long haul. Think about their growth as seriously as you consider your company's. Do that, and they'll likely grow together.

Published on: Sep 19, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.