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Career Management – the “New World” of the Spiral Career Path

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Are you still talking about “Career Ladders” in your organisation?  Or, have you abandoned the concept Career Management completely because the job environment is so volatile in most organisations today?  In the world of “flattened” organisations, doing more with less, and technology changing at an ever-increasing pace, we need a much more flexible way of providing career growth and retaining key talent in organisations.  Could the Spiral Career Path be the answer for your organisation?

The “Old Days” of Career Ladders

In the “old days” the term “Career Ladder” described the progression from “entry level” positions to higher levels of skill, responsibility, or authority and, of course, pay!  A Career Ladder generally meant upward mobility within a promotion model.  Because the ladder did not provide for lateral movement, it was assumed to be a singular track with the greatest benefits at the top.

Career ladders are an artefact of the era when one was expected to sign onto an organisation at age 21, follow the rules, get promoted incrementally over time, and retire with a gold watch at age 60.

Those days are long gone!  Career ladders died out during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when over 85% of companies downsized their white-collar workforce.  And downsizing, or rightsizing as it became euphemistically called, has not stopped.  The situation is still that most of the lost jobs are not at “shop floor” level, but white-collar jobs, including technical and management jobs.  As companies thin out, those leadership positions disappear — and most don’t come back.

For example, in that period at General Electric, engineers hired right out of university went through a career development process which included managerial training.  Over time, the company began to bulge with managers.  Jack Welch laid off thousands, “de-layering,” as some people called it.  With those managers gone, most “next steps” in the career ladder moved two or three rungs out of reach.

And this remains a Career Management Problem for most organisations even today.  Truthfully, intentionally or not, we are still offering “traditional” careers!

Dual Career Pathing

The Dual Career Path is an extension to the traditional career ladder that allows employees to be promoted along either a supervisory or technical track.  Dual Career Pathing is common in industries where valuable employees have particular technical skills but may not be inclined to pursue a management career path – such as IT.  When properly managed, a coherent Dual Career Path can help companies retain top talent by offering extended career opportunities and concomitant remuneration packages while allowing employees to remain in their chosen technical careers.  This approach certainly helps, but still does not solve the problem of Career Ladders with missing rungs!  And is also a problem for effective Leadership Development.

The “New World” of Career Management.

Career Management is now a dual responsibility.  It is the responsibility of:

  1. Organisational Management to define the careers available in the organisation, including the knowledge, skills, outcomes and responsibilities associated with each position, and to work with employees so that each employee is able to achieve their career ambitions within the organisation – particularly high performing and high potential employees.
  2. Employees to explore and understand what careers paths are available, the knowledge and skills needed to achieve the different positions and, together with management, to map their career development options to the possibilities offered by the organisation.

The use of the word “options” is deliberate.  Because in the new world of Career Management, growth is no longer just vertical.  In fact, most job movements in the workplace today are lateral rather than vertical.  A Career Pathing today is more of a spiral than a ladder.

Spiral Career Pathing

In most job environments there are clear “career paths”.  These career paths grow skills and competencies directly on the skills and competencies from the previous level.  In IT for instance, in the area of Application Development we have the following “traditional” career path:

  • Developer / Programmer – can grow to become an
  • Analyst Programmer – which ultimately grows to become a
  • System Designer.

The Spiral Career Path allows the employee to make a series of lateral moves between different functional areas within the same organization.  It enables management to retain talent by continuously challenging employees with new tasks and broadening their experience while at the same time managing and controlling hierarchical progress.  Spiral Career Pathing is much more appropriate for today’s flattened organisations that offer limited upward opportunities.

In Spiral Career Pathing a Career Cluster is group of careers that share common features.  A Career Path is a smaller group of jobs within a Career Cluster that use similar skills.  Each Career Cluster contains several Career Paths.

When defining a Spiral Career Path, common skills and competencies are defined for the Career Cluster and the Career Paths within the Career Cluster.  This enables employees to “carry” skills and competencies from one job grouping (Career Ladder or Job Family) to another.  Using our previous example of Application Development, if we broaden the overall Career Cluster to “Systems”, we have the following possibilities:

Level (*)

Application Development

Software Quality Management

Business Solutions

Data Management

Entry Level Developer Tester   Database Programmer
Technologist Level Analyst Programmer Test Automation Business Analyst ETL Specialist
Professional Level System Designer Test Analyst Senior Business Analyst BI Analyst

(*) Please note that this is an example, it is not definitive.

In this example, an employee in a position at one level can move, after some experience in that position, to another position at the same level.  As they move from one Job Family to another, they use some of the skills and competencies already acquired, and acquire new skills and competencies to enable them to perform in the new position.  Growth and Development in the organisation can therefore be both Lateral and Vertical – with benefits to both the employee and the organisation.

Benefits of a Spiral Career Path

There are benefits to both the organisation and employees of putting in place a Spiral Career Path.

For employees, it enables them to:

  • Grow more skills and broader experience of the business environment.
  • Experience different careers in the organisation and decide which is right for them at the time.
  • Move to different careers and not limit to a single hierarchical structure
  • Have a flexible approach to growing their careers
  • Take charge of their own career
  • Explore opportunities without the stress of moving to different organisations.

For organisations, it enables them to:

  • Put better strategies in place to retain key and core talent
  • Provide broad experience for high potential and high performing employees
  • Grow employees both laterally and vertically, not necessarily at the same time.
  • Grow managers and leaders with broad experience of the organisation as a whole
  • “Flex” the career positions as and when needed by organisation strategy.

Moving Forward with Spiral Career Pathing

If Spiral Career Pathing sounds like it’s the way to go in your organisation, here are some things to consider to help you get on your way.

Look laterally for career moves.  Don’t think of Career Paths – think of Job Families and Career Clusters, or groups of jobs that have something in common.  For example if your organisation employs Business Analysts, consider other analyst positions in the organisation, perhaps in Business Intelligence or even Market Research.  For most High Potentials and High Performers in organisations, this growth is interpreted to mean “importance” to the organisation – a major factor in retention.  Lateral experience broadens skills, which should also improve chances of moving up.

Ensure coherence.  Flattened organisations does not mean no careers!  There is nothing worse than a Career Path (Spiral or Traditional) with missing rungs.  Employees need to understand the requirements (outcomes, skills, knowledge and competencies) of every job.  They need to understand what they need to do in order to move to the next step of their career.

Have learning and development processes in place.  Employees need to have the development opportunities – training, stretch assignments, etc – that will enable them to be ready for the requirements of the job.  People have different ways of learning, so the development processes need to include more than one method of developing the knowledge, skills, and competencies needed in the organisation.

Create stretch assignments.  At some stage or another, everyone is “stretched” in terms of job output.  At these times, assign parts of the job at hand to others to help them to understand components of the job and learn to do them well.  For example, get more experienced employees to train and coach new people, and give them performance feedback.  In this way elements of Succession Planning can also be addressed.

Spiral Career Pathing for IT

If your organisation employs IT people, then you are in luck.  The IITPSA (Institute for IT Professionals SA), the SAQA-recognised Professional Body for ICT in South Africa has defined an IT Career Development Framework covering all positions across 5 levels of ICT.  This “ready-to-implement” framework has a proven track record and is mapped to international standards and to growing IT Professionals in your organisation.  To find out more, contact us.

It’s a different world!  But if a world without Career Ladders allows organisations to flex structures as needed by strategy, and allows employees to take charge of their own careers, then it is a far better one.

If you would like to explore Spiral Career Pathing for your organisation, please contact us.

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