Step 1: Think “lattice” instead of “ladder.”
Traditionally, career progress has meant “climbing the corporate ladder,” working your way only up, often within one business function. But in today’s world, the rules have changed — flatter organizations don’t provide multiple roles for vertical growth, and working within one functional area doesn’t usually provide the range of skills expected of today’s leaders. Moreover, many Gen Y and younger employees expect more diverse professional development opportunities and more frequent career moves than prior generations. Defining career growth as a combination of vertical and lateral moves and providing appropriate support and rewards for them creates a variety of opportunities resulting in better retention and a more effective workforce.
Step 2: Build career paths based on business-critical competencies.
Traditional career paths are based on mastering what the next-level role requires — “checking the box” through a series of roles from lower-level to higher-level. There is little transparency or formal guidance on how to move to roles outside your function, or how to develop the technical and business skills to be considered for them. (So, if you’re in Finance or Supply Chain or Sales, it’s hard to know which other roles or groups outside your function may be a fit for your skill set.) But when career paths are connected to competencies, it becomes possible to define a combination of career paths within and outside a function to help people to plan their career based on the skills they have or need. These competency-based career paths not only support development for individuals but also help the organization strategically grow the talent needed to execute business strategies and fill the leadership pipeline.
Step 3: Define a broad set of “accelerator” activities.
Nowadays, development based primarily on training courses gives way to a broad set of focused and intentional career-building activities, including on-the-job training, special projects, networking, and formal training events. Accelerators may include a variety of activities that can range from project or people management roles to global exposure assignments or specific projects that build technical or business-critical knowledge. Accelerators also help employees make appropriate career choices, such as deciding to take on a role that requires relocation or extra workload through participation in a cross-functional project, but will provide skills and exposure to responsibilities that are considered essential for a senior-level role they aspire to.
Step 4: Use career profiles to create transparency about career paths.
Examples of career paths have typically been based on word of mouth or on the career progression of key leaders. But these anecdotes often reflect roles or organizational structures that no longer exist or that aren’t aligned to current business strategies. Better practice is to make expected competencies, experiences, and possible career moves transparent by preparing “career profiles” for select roles in each function. Career profiles serve as easily accessible, illustrative examples or discussion tools of how one’s career might progress, without implying it should or must progress this way in order to be promoted. Most leading organizations also provide self-guided tools (e.g., self-assessment, career planning, or development plan templates) that help both employees and supervisors use the career profiles as input for charting possible career plans.
Step 5: Drive alignment with business strategy and integration with other talent programs.
Traditionally, career development has not been aligned to business strategy and has had few integration points with other talent processes. In contrast, career paths can be a powerful tool to help translate changes in business strategy into development activities. They can also serve as an integrator across multiple talent processes and help both business and HR leaders in talent development discussions, especially when related to succession planning and global mobility. Career paths can also help with strategy implementation by transferring changes in the organization’s strategy (e.g., a focus on innovation, expansion into new markets, new technology adoption) into required competencies that are reflected in the various roles along a given career path.
We find that business leaders, individuals, and HR professionals alike are enthusiastic for the benefits that can come from supplementing existing career development tools with multidimensional career paths. By taking “the road less traveled,” they’re finding a versatile way to integrate talent and business priorities, drive careers that fit personal and professional aspirations, distinguish their talent brand, and build competitive advantage.