Don't Let AI Tell Your Team How to Advance

By Dave Barnett

April 19, 2024

9 minute read



Generative AI programs are making great contributions to the operational and marketplace-driven activities of businesses in many ways. Some recently published survey results, however, reveal a potential “red flag” for HR professionals, department heads and managers. What got my attention? The survey revealed that nearly half (47%) of Gen Z employees said they got better career advice from ChatGPT than from their managers, and more than half (62%) of Gen Z employees said they’d like to talk about their careers more with their managers, but the managers are always too busy.


To me, this was disturbing on a gut-punch level. I won’t question that generative AI is proving itself to be a powerful tool in applications like software programming and cyber security, content generation, research and countless others. In career planning, maybe not just yet. We need to be careful to retain the personal nature of the relationships between leaders and the talent they are responsible for nurturing, and give managers the tools they need to do that nurturing. But how can managers be more attentive to the career pathing concerns of younger employees while competing with the 24/7 availability and anonymity of generative AI?




Gen Z and the AI Challenge

Born after 1996, the Gen Z group are digital natives who are not able to recall a time when the smartphone didn’t exist. They are also the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet, and are on track to be the most well-educated. Coming of age during the Great Recession and hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of these young up-and-comers have had a bumpy ride. They were either still in college or just beginning to get their careers started when the pandemic struck, and many of them were in high-risk employment sectors at the time.

So, what’s worrisome with this group of younger employees as it relates to AI? The research findings are disconcerting on a couple of levels. You could say this generation’s opinions are predictable when you consider they may be more likely to rely on the instant gratification that research via smartphone can render. But it’s particularly alarming when you think about its implications for employers.

We’ve all seen what a powerful, and in many cases useful, tool generative AI can be as it brings together a number of data sources to form interesting and compelling perspectives. But I see two problems in this scenario.

The first problem is that generative AI lacks context. When someone enters a query into a generative AI platform, the application is scanning a world of data to make its assumptions. None of that data is specific to the context of your organization, nor is it specific to the uniqueness or the aspirations of the individual asking the question (in this case, advice about their career).

The second problem is that generative AI is only as good as the data it pulls from, and it pulls from historical data. It is not likely to have any future-forward intelligence, or to account for changes that might be about to occur in an industry sector or in your organization. It can only consider what’s been published to date, and therefore lacks any sort of “future lean.”

You can see how, given the behavioral norms that we see in the Zenial Generation, this sets up a dangerous situation, especially as we think about career planning. If they are comfortable trusting the information being generated by AI, Gen Z employees risk being misguided. What they may be getting from AI is very unlikely to align with their organization’s objectives or their own professional goals.  AI is a powerful and useful tool, but understanding how it can be leveraged as an input, instead of as a single source of truth is critical.


Asking the right questions

As a licensed executive coach, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about their careers and aspirations. On numerous occasions I talk with people concerned about career growth and wanting to be promoted. The repetitive proposition is, “I put up great results so I should be promoted. I don’t understand what’s getting in the way.” 

In these cases, the answer is nearly always that there are behaviors inconsistent with our organization’s values getting in their way. At times it feels like clients are essentially saying to me, “Give me the checklist of things I need to do to get the promotion,” to which my response is reliably, “You’re asking the wrong question.” Individuals will never get the outcome they want if they ask that question. Instead, they should ask, “How can you help me to develop and become a better leader?” then I can work with them. For many, career growth can be mentally reduced to the “checklist to promotion” in lieu of an iterative process of personal development and growth that results in increased career responsibility. With generative AI, where the output is only as good as the question and there is no contextual reference, I fear that the checklist mentality will only become more pervasive, leading to greater levels of employee discontent with career growth factors.


5 Things Employers Can Do to Reclaim the Conversation

They say the best defense is a strong offense, so I began to think about what organizations and their management teams can do to take back the conversation proactively, so there’s no question of who – the manager or the AI program – would be the employee’s go-to for career advice. I came up with 5 action items that HR leaders and managers can put into practice. 


1. Build a "servant leader" culture

As an organizational leader my job is simple. It’s to achieve exceptional results through others and unlock the full potential of our people. If managers are not making the time to have those career conversations, they are not correctly prioritizing what they do in a day. Their number one job is to help those within their organization – the people who work directly or even indirectly with them – to be wildly successful in their pursuit of excellence.

If the culture isn’t there to enable this, then the culture needs to change. For lack of a better term, I’d call it a culture of “servant leadership” and it’s a culture that HR leaders need to start building, and keep building, every day. 


2. Give managers the tools to have career pathing conversations

 Managers are generally pretty bad at career development conversations. There’s no college course to give them the skills they need and very few role models they can emulate. As HR leaders, we have to give managers the tools they need to conduct these conversations successfully. It may be in the form of a toolkit or a template. Anything that works within the culture of the organization to stimulate the conversations – and make time for them – is a good start. 


3. Managers and team members need "something to do about it"

In this process, it’s imperative to maintain what I would describe as a bias towards action. Having the conversation is great, but what if it’s just a conversation and then nobody does anything about it? There must be a trajectory to work on, based on the individual’s aspirations. Then we work on driving development within that trajectory. If we don’t have that, then we have development that’s pointless because it’s not development within a vector.

In this action plan, managers need to steer those conversations toward aspiration. Managers can help their team members choose a path and establish goals – where do you want to be in 5, 10 or 12 years (actually, for Gen Z, we should ask where do you want to be in 1, 3 or 5 years)? Without a path, they can bounce around and land back in the same spot.

Managers should always be familiar with the resources and opportunities that are available to those who seek their guidance. For example, know how the company’s tuition benefits policy could help to propel that employee along their path. Know the opportunities for growth within the organization and the availability of things like stretch assignments or business resource groups that can help team members spread their wings.


4. Develop an internal advocacy network

Helping someone develop and grow is meaningful. But then what? We need a means of empowering our leaders to shine a light on those “movers and shakers” who are putting in the effort to develop their careers. How do we give them the visibility, in the right venues, to make their efforts known? People certainly need skills capital to get the job done, but if we consider the nature of how organizations work, they also need social and political capital.

Building that capital can be done in a number of ways, from inviting someone to a meeting, to coaching them before they make an important presentation, to awards programs or a hundred other things. At DeVry, we have several awards programs where team members are nominated by managers or their peers, helping these individuals to build social capital.


5. Share success stories within your organization

It’s not enough to provide internal rewards. To make success contagious, it’s absolutely crucial to celebrate it. Organizations must have pathways in place to share those success stories once they emerge. When successes are promoted, it sends a message to everyone that there is a pathway to learn and grow, and that they can trust the organization to provide the resources they need to become wildly successful.

Culture is developed through tales. This is certainly one of the ways organizational cultures are shaped. Whether formally or informally, this tribal storytelling helps you shape the perception of your organization proactively. You can’t choose whether or not to have a culture. The question is whether you choose the culture – putting in the hard work that it takes to shape the narrative, recognizing excellence and creating your own legends – or the culture chooses you. In the latter instance, you’ve chosen not to put in the work and perception of your organization and its people is shaped by others, from the raw materials of largely uninformed opinions. 


Make Internal Career Mobility Your Priority

AI is changing and developing every day, and so is your workforce. With each passing day, Gen Z is becoming a larger portion of the workforce. Every bit of research shows how this generation looks at work differently. Employees of previous generations looked for a place to not only build a career, but to spend a career. Changing jobs was looked at in a negative light. Rather than a vehicle for personal and professional growth, the perception was that the job wasn’t a good fit.

Gen Z views work as something much more fluid, more transient. For them, it’s less about the growth of the organization and much more about their own growth. We should expect the Gen Z group to spend one to two years in a job, and that’s going to make us think about work differently as well.

If you are to have any hope of extending the shelf life of Gen Z employees you will need to prioritize their growth and development, just as you prioritize your organization’s, by empowering managers to have career pathing conversations and considering internal career mobility as the cornerstone of your employment strategy.

About Dave Barnett


Chief Administrative Officer, DeVry University

Dave Barnett is the chief administrative officer for DeVry University. In this role, Barnett is focused on aligning DeVry leadership and talent to achieving the University’s most important work, while also helping its partners with talent strategies to do the same. He has responsibility for leading our DeVryWorks partnership strategy, while also driving the direction of Human Resources, Diversity Equity & Inclusion, Public Relations, Communications and Alumni Relations efforts for the University.

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