Among the speakers, from left: Rapti Khurana of the NFL, Carrington Carter of TIAA, and Laurie Rebholz of Citi (Photos for From Day One by Alyssa Meadows)

It’s increasingly acknowledged that the traditional career ladder is dead. With that begs the question: What should career growth look like and when should it start? “My focus at this point is to literally catch them young,” said Rapti Khurana, VP and head of talent engagement and development at the National Football League. Career growth can blossom with young employees from the first day of employment, she believes, a priority that will make companies stronger.

Khurana joined a panel of experts at From Day One’s May conference in Brooklyn to talk about changing attitudes around career growth and how companies can adapt. Surveys show that employees are hungry for opportunities. According to moderator Lydia Dishman, a staff editor at Fast Company, employees who see good opportunities to learn and grow are nearly three times more likely to be engaged with their workplace than those who don’t. For 91% of employees, it’s very or extremely important for managers to encourage learning and experimentation, while 84% of managers believe this can help close the skills gap.

Panelists discussed how companies can adopt a culture of early learning, flexible growth, and personalized pathways of opportunity. “The challenge with talent management processes in general is it’s really subjective,” noted Ben Colvin, founder of Coaching Works NYC. “What we focus on with our clients is to start to create a level playing field.”

The full panel, from left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Judith Heller of Northwell Health, Ben Colvin of Coaching Works NYC, and Khurana, Carter, and Rebholz

“Where we’ve seen success is ensuring where there is leadership accountability as part of scorecard metrics: understanding where you’re importing and exporting talent, what’s the makeup of that talent, what’s the retention,” said Carrington Carter, VP of talent acquisition and internal mobility at TIAA, the financial-services organization.

Panelists agreed that opportunities and support for growth need to be democratized across the company. Judith Heller, VP of physician recruitment for Northwell Health, noted that the company allows all employees to sign up for its High Potential Development Program. “You can put together what you think your next skill traits can be, and you can also be selected for it, and I think those go hand-in-hand,” she said.

Laurie Rebholz, managing director of global leadership and performance solutions at Citi, added that “for leadership development globally, it’s for all of our employees–whether high-potential or not–because we want them to have as much growth in different ways.” Citi moved away from a “core leadership curriculum” to a “lab-and-modular format” that better took into account individualized needs for growth, and responded to employees who’d be going through job changes.

Panelists also stressed the need to support soft skills development, especially as technical skills more frequently become outdated. “For us, we prioritize it at the very front, because some of the other skills we can help provide,” said Carter. “If we inject learning agility into the business and the function, that’s where the magic happens,” added Rebholz.

“Coaching has to be integrated into other efforts; it can’t be a standalone effort,” said Colvin

Colvin noted that coaching can be a powerful tool to help employees in their career journeys, if implemented the right way. “Coaching has to be integrated into other efforts; it can’t be a standalone effort,” he said. “How you create that personalized conversation with employees will help them build out what skills they have, the innate traits you have that will support you as you continue to rise up.”

The panel ended on that increasingly common question: What’s the state of the career ladder today? Colvin pointed out that organizations are still hierarchical and employees must navigate that. “Whether it’s through coaching or talent management, there has to be some level of personalized connection and support around navigating that disconnect,” he said.

Rebholz compared the modern career journey to a game of Chutes and Ladders. Carter said, “The reality is that it’s about horizontal growth and expanding your base of knowledge about all things soft and technical skills.” Khurana said she draws on lessons from her own career mentor: “Own your career. It’s really your career, and you see the critical experiences you need to develop yourself.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.