The days of having a career ladder or career path have passed. I’m sorry if this bursts anyone’s bubble, but it’s true. Organizations used to be fond of having a defined path through the organization. For example you might start your journey as a customer service representative I. If the stars aligned and you kept your nose clean, you would eventually become a customer service representative II and then a supervisor, manager, etc. You get the picture.
Under this philosophy, the responsibility for making sure the ladder or path was there fell to the organization. HR departments often had people on staff whose only job was to update career paths. Likewise, the responsibility for making sure the pipeline was full of candidates to fill those jobs was the organizations as well. Here’s what’s wrong with that process. Imagine yourself on a ladder. You can place yourself pretty high up on one of the top rungs if you want to. You’ve earned it! Now look below you. Let’s assume there is someone on the ladder below you, the next in line so to speak. There aren’t three or four people there. There’s only one. And there’s only one below that person, and so on and so forth.
Next, imagine you are one of the people on the lower rungs. Or worse yet, you aren’t even on the ladder yet, but just looking at the ladder from afar. What has to happen if you want to get to the top of the ladder? A whole lot of people either have to make it to the top and exit that way, or somebody has to have an unfortunate accident and fall to the ground below.
A better way to approach career development is to thing about career options. Rather than the limiting nature of a path, think about having a pool of opportunities the individual can choose from. This pool, and there will be several pools in every organization, is filled with possibilities that match the skills, interests, and relative experience of certain individuals.
Once you have the pool mentality, then it’s really a matter of asking individuals in your organization to create a development plan, have a conversation with their manager about what they are looking for in their current and next opportunity, and then helping to match them with the right option from one of the pools.
Here’s how that might look in reality. Let’s say Linda is the aforementioned customer service supervisor. In her development plan she may highlight her strengths at coaching the team and collaborating with others. She may also talk about her interests or passions on the creative side of the business. She may further indicate that one of the things she will be working on and actively pursuing as a development opportunity is her strategic thinking or longer term planning skills. If you are Linda’s manager and you’ve had these conversations with her and see that she’s making progress in her development, you just might see the ideal opportunity floating around for her in one of the pools. She might be suited, even if it’s not a perfect match, for a manager role in the marketing department. Remember, she’s already good at building a team and collaborating, and she’s passionate about creative endeavors. She may not have the technical expertise to do a marketing job as an individual contributor, but that’s not what you want the manager to do anyway. You want them to manage and lead the team. Great fit for Linda and a critical position filled for the company. Under the old system, she may never have had the opportunity to even try for that role.
Ladders are great for cleaning second story windows. Not so much for career development.