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From Hierarchical to Competency-based Career Development – Why and How?

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“People typically have to move up if they want any sort of financial or career growth.  Bad bosses are everywhere because employees often end up in positions they don’t like or aren’t good at.  A Gallup study found that people are most likely to say they’re promoted based on tenure or success in a prior role, not based on talent or what they do best.”  Gallup, Workplace.

Traditional Career Management

Most of us in the workplace today have “experienced” Traditional Career Management in our lifetime.

In our parent’s time, the one important thing was to get a “job for life”.  Organisations held “loyalty” in high regard, and recruiters looked for “stability” in the career history of candidates.

Traditional career paths were purely hierarchical with incumbents growing as “individual contributors” for as long as possible until they reached a ceiling and stuck there.  Some were lucky enough to get an offer to move into “Management”.  These offers were often based on longevity and experience in a single role rather than on the ability of the individual.

Going into Management meant a lot of perks: parking closer to the lifts, an office with (more) windows, an extra 1-week per year annual leave, a bigger car, and, of course, a salary increase.  However, going into Management was the only way that anyone could actually achieve these “perks”.  It’s no wonder then that there was a clamour to get into management positions.  And so, the hierarchy of the organisation grew.  In many organisations that I have worked with over the years, there are still more layers of managers than there are layers of “individual contributors”.

This also led to the title of “Manager” being vested on someone who managed a process rather than a group of people.  And so, we have a number of Managers with no direct reports in many organisations still today.

And, it led to the concept of the Peter Principle[1].  The Peter principle is a management concept developed by Laurence J. Peter.  It observed that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence” –  an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily transition into the same skills in a different job.

The Advent of Modern Career Management

All this came crashing down in the 1990s in the move by organisations to “downsize” or, more euphemistically, “rightsize” the organisation.  Loyalty from the company to its employees flew out the window and, along with that, automatic loyalty expected from employers withered and died.  After that it became every organisation for itself, every man (or woman) for him(her)self.

It’s only recently that a new, and very different, relationship between employer and employee has started to emerge.

From the experience of Agile in the Software Development environment, organisations started to realise that it’s not “loyalty” that creates a winning organisation, it’s “engaged” employees.  And so, the fields of Employee Engagement and Employee Experience have grown over the past 15 to 20 years and are now reaching maturity.  Although many organisations still do not use these to best effect.

Dual Career Pathing

Dual Career Pathing was discussed as early as 1992 in the article “Dual Career Paths: Recognising the Technical Contributor” by R Bradley Hill and published in the Journal of Compensation and Benefits, July/August 1992.  However, it only started to become popular in the late 2000s.

Dual Career Pathing is based on the principle that individual growth and development can extend beyond the traditional management stream.  That individuals can growth their technical and professional skills to levels equivalent of management in the organisation.  And, when they do, they need to be recognised and rewarded accordingly.

Dual Career Pathing is, however, not necessarily applicable across the organisation.  When designing Dual Career Paths, the following questions should be asked:

  • Is the Technical or Professional field deep enough that the knowledge and skills can be reasonably expected to grow, allowing individuals to contribute at increasingly higher levels?
  • Is attracting, retaining, and developing these technical or professional competencies at these higher levels critical to the success of the organisation?

A critical aspect of success for Dual Career Pathing is the ability to define the differentials between the levels to ensure that the knowledge, skills, and deliverables are commensurate with the higher levels in the organisations.

We have found that the fairest and best way to achieve this is by defining the competencies needed – technical, business and behavioural, as people grow through the levels.  These need to be defined upfront so that there is clarity right from the start.

Career Pathing and Competencies – the Winning Combination

In previous articles in this series we have spoken about from Jobs to Roles, and from Rigid to Reconfigurable structures.  We spoke about defining Competencies for Roles that link to the Organisational Capabilities needed to deliver strategy and achieve goals.

Well, Career Pathing with Competencies is where it all comes together.

Do you know, it has been established through much research undertaken by HCMI[2] and others, that “growing your own timber”, is much more cost effective than employing from outside when you need the skills?  Why then, I wonder, is this management skill in such a scarce supply?

Incorporating competencies into an organisation is simply good business.  And, by defining the competencies essential for the performance of the Roles identified by the organisation helps the organisation and its people in a number of ways including:

  • Better staff retention
  • Better quality recruitment – internal or external
  • Improved focus on training and development
  • Better performance management – especially development-based performance management
  • Higher productivity
  • Reduced management costs.

Competency-based career pathing clarifies how to devise a development process that supports flexible career latticing.

Towards Competency-based Career Pathing

Whereas traditional ladder-based career paths are hierarchical and unidirectional, competency-based careers deliver a wide variety of career moves across multiple departments and work areas.

One of the key reasons for staff turnover today is the lack of career opportunities in the organisation.  This coupled with people today wanting to develop and grow faster, it is imperative for organisations to provide a variety of career opportunities, that might not be logical, but that are available for anyone to aspire to.  By defining the competencies, there can be no compromises, no “favours”, no “peter principle”.

High performing people are critical for organisations that want to be high-performing organisations.  With high calibre talent in short supply globally, it is important for organisations to have a plan to develop the people that will provide organisational productivity, performance, and continual improvement, now and into the future.

Career development today needs to enable employees to customise their career paths, and both the organisation and the employee have important roles to play in this process.

The organisational responsibility is to define the capabilities, roles, and competences that the organisation needs in order to deliver its strategy and achieve its goals.

Today, this looks more like a spiderweb, with Roles (not jobs), defined by Competencies spread over the web.

Once defined, employees can clearly view the skills, behaviours, and abilities necessary to make a variety of desired and required career adjustments.  Competencies around the rings will be similar, but competencies towards the centre will be incremental.  Competency-based Career Pathing is especially important for organisations wishing to attract and retain millennial workers, who themselves expect to be perpetually challenged.
Today, this looks more like a spiderweb, with Roles (not jobs), defined by Competencies spread over the web.

Competency-based Career Pathing doesn’t only serve the need to attract and retain the right talent, it is also the engine that fills the organisation’s pipeline to ensure a supply of future skills, and future leaders – both managerial and technical.

Why You Should Implement Career Pathing

Career Paths provide an excellent and proven means to ensure that talent has access to a variety of role options and opportunities, including higher level positions, lateral moves, or entirely new roles. Employees recognise the value of being a member of the organisation, as they witness the tangible effort being invested to assist them with their professional development.  There are a number of organisational benefits to implementing Career Paths, and especially Competency-based Career Paths.

Enhance Commitment and Engagement – Most organisations would like to improve or maintain high levels of employee engagement and retention.  When employees see that an organisation genuinely investing in their professional growth and development, they are far more likely to feel a sense of commitment to their work.  Providing employees with the tools they require to grow their careers within your organisation significantly lessens the likelihood of them seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Uncover Hidden Talent and Attract new Talent – By implementing Career Pathing, especially Competency-based Career Pathing, managers also discover information that they didn’t know about their employees, such as hidden ambitions or skills.  It can happen that an employee occupies a position that is below their ability.  By leveraging Career Pathing and Competencies it is an easy task to evaluate an employee’s abilities and strengths for a specific job, thus ensuring the best people in each role.

Improved Workforce and Succession Planning – Today’s modern world of work is more dynamic than ever, presenting greater challenges within long-term workforce planning.  The adoption of Career Pathing will allow the organisation to avoid having to hurriedly fill roles with employees who aren’t best-suited, and then trying to deal with an accelerated learning curve.

The future of Career Management in organisations is Competency-based Career Pathing.  Don’t be the last one on the bus.  Get started now.

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  • Has your company started to look at Competency-based Career Pathing?
  • Are you losing key employees because they don’t see career opportunities for themselves in the organisation?
  • Have you started planning for your future skills – the skills that are going to drive the success of your business in the future?
  • Are you able to have meaningful, constructive career conversations with your employees about opportunities for their growth and development?


At TalentAlign we have been at the forefront of Career Development and creating Career Frameworks for organisations since 2006.  We have also been at the forefront of defining Jobs and Roles based on assessible competencies.  We have the experience and the foresight to help you and your organisation create the Career Framework that attracts, retains and grows your best talent.


[1] Dr Laurence J Peter and Raymond Hull, “The Peter Principle”, 1969

[2] HCMI, Human Capital Management Institute,

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