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How Career Development Plans Contribute to Staff Retention

Three management experts discuss the importance of crafting career development plans with staff and how this influences retention rates

Lauren Everett

Employers across all industries are experiencing issues with staff retention as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many employees to seek out new job opportunities that offer flexibility and less stressful work environments. As a manager, having ongoing discussions with your staff about their career development can motivate them to work harder and stay loyal to the organization. A Lab Manager reader submitted the following question and three lab management experts have shared their advice.

Q: Should I have a career plan defined for each staff member and will this contribute to improved retention?

Karl Ritter: Developing a career plan for each staff member is an important part of your role as a manager. To ensure long-term success for both you and your staff, you need to have long-term planning. When writing these plans, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all development plan. 

Portrait of Karl Ritter
Karl Ritter

The plan should be a collaborative effort between you and your direct report. Working together, you can clearly identify strengths and weaknesses while learning what motivates an individual. This information is critical in helping to determine their future path.

What motivates an individual can vary dramatically. They may want to grow within their current role to become an expert in a particular field. They may want to expand their responsibilities and experiences. They may have a target position that they want to reach someday. The list is endless, so understanding their motivation is crucial in the career plan process.

When looking for future roles, remember that reorganization can, and usually will, happen and roles which once existed will change. Write the career plan in a manner that targets responsibilities and not just specific roles. Look for opportunities such as temporary assignments to help your report learn what they like and what they don’t.

Regarding the concept of improved retention, I suggest looking at that in a slightly different way. Think of yourself as a people manager and not just a lab manager. Your role as a people manager is to have your report reach full potential, regardless of where in the organization they end up. This certainly is a challenge when a valuable team member leaves the lab for a role elsewhere in the business, but the business will benefit from how you developed your report. Eventually your lab will be thought of as a career development center and talented individuals will be looking for ways to join your team.

Paula McDaniel: Having career plans for your team is important, but don’t underestimate how the process to create one and its execution can improve their feelings of connectedness. Use the process to align their role with company needs and strategy. An individual who feels valued and empowered to make an impactful contribution will experience greater job satisfaction.  

Portrait of Paula McDaniel
Paula McDaniel, PhD

Partnering with your employee to develop a career plan will give them an opportunity to voice their short- and long-term goals. Employees aren’t always sure which direction they want to go and might want to test drive opportunities before making a permanent move. As a manager, you will want to have a quiver full of creative ideas that can be used to test drive or grow an employee’s skills and interests. Connect organizational needs with assignments in areas such as supervision, customer focus or technical skill growth. Sell these assignments as low-risk opportunities to expand an employee’s skill set.

Recognize that your employees will fall on a continuum of interests from grow-in-place to desire for lots of change and variety. Ensure you consider their interests and personality traits in defining career development ideas. Re-visit the career plan as part of the review process and realize that circumstances or experiences can change an employee’s goals, so flexibility is important.

Finally, retention is a tricky thing. As managers, we strive to get the best match between the job and a person’s strengths and interests. Sometimes the best thing for the individual and company is a move elsewhere—inside or outside the company. Although you might not be able to retain them within your organization, having an employee with a great experience means you have an advocate for your organization on the outside. They can play an important role in recognizing your organization’s value and helping sell your organization as a great place to be!

Sherri L. Bassner: The short answer to your question is “yes.” Think about what motivates you and keeps you engaged. For most of us, a strong source of motivation is feeling that we are doing work that makes a difference and will lead to personal growth. Knowing that your direct supervisor knows what you do, values what you do, and sees a future for you is one of the strongest retention tools there can be.

The longer answer involves understanding what each person defines as “being valued” and how they define “personal growth.” Hopefully, you have a well written job description for each employee. That job description should be specific enough that both you and the employee know exactly what they are responsible for, what support they need from you, and how their accountabilities relate to the success of the business. In addition, you also probably have a list of goals for each employee that tie back to their job descriptions and connect directly with the overall goals of the company.

Portrait of Sherri L. Bassner
Sherri L. Bassner, PhD

As you regularly discuss these documents with your employee, a natural extension of the discussion should be how they want to grow. This discussion can be tricky because many people harbor an expectation for career growth that they think they should have and getting them to express what they really do want can be difficult. Afterall, not everyone can be CTO or CEO. Begin by discussing what they like about their current role and what they don’t like as much. Talk about what they’d like to be able to do more and what they’d prefer to do less. Talk about different roles in the lab or the company and how they tie back to those desires. Choose a couple of potential directions the employee would like to try; identify the skill gaps they have; and, document a plan to close those gaps. You now have a career plan.

Remember that some people prefer to continuously improve at what they do instead of changing roles. This is also important growth but may limit ultimate raises in compensation or level. Make sure that tradeoff is understood. Critically, this should be a living document, one you revisit as often as you review objectives. Doing this correctly will help you retain the right people.


Karl Ritter spent more than 30 years at Mars Inc. in the analytical, color, and flavor laboratories; the last eight years of which as the analytical lab manager for the Mars Wrigley Global R&D team. During his time at Mars, Karl focused on solving challenging problems and integrating the lab into the business. Currently working as an independent consultant, Karl continues to bridge the gap between the science and the solution.

Paula McDaniel, PhD, spent 23 years in corporate analytical and product development groups at Air Products after receiving her PhD in Physical Chemistry (University of Illinois, 1988). In 2011, she transitioned to Intertek, a global testing/certification business, as business development manager/director for the Chemical & Materials location in Allentown, PA. At Intertek Allentown, she positioned the site’s analytical testing offerings and supported client needs in the medical device, health and beauty products, chemicals industries, and more.

Sherri L. Bassner, PhD, is a retired chemist and manager who spent 30 years developing new products and services, and then leading others in those same efforts. She is a part-time leadership coach and blogs on personal and professional development.  Christie and Sherri also both serve on Lab Manager’s Editorial Advisory Board.

This article is part of Lab Manager’s Learning to Lead Q&A series. For more expert input on management, leadership, safety, and sustainability topics affecting laboratory leaders, click here.