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From ladder to lattice: Rethinking career paths

From ladder to lattice: Rethinking career paths

Manager’s dilemma of career promotion

As tempting as it may seem, it’s not possible for managers to simply hand out promotions to high performing employees; there are constraints to consider such as organisational structure, the makeup of the existing employee base, low staff turnover, and company policies limiting the number or timing of promotions. There’s another issue to consider: what if your valued employee doesn’t want a promotion – at least in the traditional sense of moving step by step up a hierarchical ladder?

Despite years of flattened org charts, the perception remains that a promotion entails climbing the corporate ladder, being handed more responsibility, and – more often than not – managing people. It’s a somewhat restrictive and outmoded view of what career progression can entail, perhaps better suited to the Mad Men era of the 1960s when tenures with the same company could last several decades. Deloitte states: “The ladder’s one-size-fits-all approach assumes employees are more alike than different, and want and need similar things to deliver results.”[1]

Of course, the biggest problem is that many technical or subject matter experts (sometimes referred to as specialised professionals) have no interest in staff oversight responsibilities but still crave more visibility, value, influence, leadership and pay.

A report from Korn Ferry[2] stated: “Many specialised professionals – scientists, analysts, designers, engineers, accountants, architects, doctors and consultants among them – are more interested in developing their professional expertise than in pursuing a general management career track. They find little to no appeal in a path that would take them out of their area of specialisation.”

What is career lattice?

Career lattice, a definition: Flexible career progression that enables and supports employees to take vertical, horizontal and diagonal pathways – whether that be in their department/skill area or not – so they can upskill, cross-skill and reskill.

In 2018, we might add certain tech/IT roles to the list of specialised professionals. Indeed, it’s the increased importance of tech professionals in just about every organisation that has spurred HR to rethink traditional notions of promotions and career paths. Today, lateral sideways career moves matter as much as linear upwards progression and the ‘career lattice’ has taken hold alongside the traditional career ladder.

The career lattice acknowledges that careers zig as much as zag; they stop and start; they consist of short-, mid- and long-term projects and assignments. The lattice acknowledges that careers might also require planned descents – or what might have been called a step ‘down’ in the traditional ladder – along which people can grow and gain additional experiences.

The lattice also acknowledges that work is not tied to a physical place. Technological advances, globalisation and the rise of knowledge work have resulted in work and workers being less bound to physical locations or set hours; teams are often dispersed across locations and time zones.

Non-management career mapping

To put the career lattice concept into practice, some companies have responded by putting in place non-management career tracks – mobility paths for professionals who don’t want to manage people. This is not a new concept. German electronics manufacturer Bosch introduced career tracks in the late 1970s and they are now common – in various forms – across most industries.

Non-management career tracks require career mapping. This process involves:

  • Writing job descriptions for every role
  • Organising those roles into job families
  • Assigning each of those families preferred competencies
  • Developing role-based learning plans
  • Identifying common ‘transitional’ or promotional jobs for every job description

The keys to career mapping are transparency and empowerment. Employees need to be able to see the career options available to them (while staying within their specialised field), and then receive the support they need to get from A to B. They also need to be able to take action themselves – in the form of self-directed professional development – to make such a move.

Ultimately, employees may opt to stay in the same job, advance through two or three levels in the same job family, move laterally, or see if there are transitional opportunities available which would allow them to move to other similar positions within the same company.

This level of transparency encourages employees to master their current roles, which is always a key consideration for specialised professionals, and continue their development so they can prepare for other roles within the company.

However, there’s also a cultural shift required to enable career mapping and non-management career tracks to work. Instead of only celebrating and rewarding promotions, it’s time to celebrate lateral moves as well – keeping in mind that finding transferable skills that can impact other segments of the business can be benefit both the employee who desires more responsibility, and the organisation which continues to benefit from their skillset.

Just as importantly, such career moves must be compensated appropriately. It’s true that people often move to management positions to increase their remuneration, even when it’s apparent such roles are not suited to them. One way to make non-managerial roles more attractive is to offer rewards or bonuses that aren’t solely for those people with management responsibilities – for example, profit-sharing and performance bonuses for all employees.

Career mapping and embracing the concept of the career lattice are two ways to widen the scope of opportunity for specialised professionals without them having to progress by taking on management responsibilities. Just as critically, it may prevent your highly valued employee – and their irreplaceable knowledge – from walking out the door.

Thinking of broadening the career path options for your employees? ELMO’s Succession Management solution enables managers to identify high performers by assessing potential, performance, flight risk and readiness for new roles, and increase bench strength for critical roles, while empowering employees so they can investigate their desired career path – whether that’s via a traditional career ladder or a career lattice structure.

ELMO Software  is a cloud-based solution that helps thousands of organisations across Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to effectively manage their people, process and pay. ELMO solutions span the entire employee lifecycle from ‘hire to retire’. They can be used together or stand-alone, and are configurable according to an organisation’s unique processes and workflows. Automate and streamline your operations to reduce costs, increase efficiency and bolster productivity. For further information, contact us.

[1] “The Corporate Lattice” by Cathy Benko, Molly Anderson, Suzanne Vickberg