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Re-Thinking Career Development: Up and Sideways

4 ways to get started

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Traditionally, career ladders have been formal processes used by organizations to allow employees to advance their careers to a higher level. Typically, such advancement included expanded responsibility and authority and an increase in pay, with the ultimate target being a leadership role. Employees and organizations both benefit from such an approach: employees see career growth, new challenges, and higher compensation while organizations retain talent, build a well-trained workforce, and enhance their attractiveness in the marketplace. 

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “Career plateaus and career stagnation can occur in the traditional career ladder and can block a person’s ability to climb the ladder… This situation may cause the employee to look outside the company for other opportunities.” 

When such approaches are an organization’s only or primary approach to development, problems can occur. First, not every employee wants to move “up.” There are many who want to learn and grow within their professions but not necessarily as leaders of people. They are quite content (and quite an asset) becoming a subject matter expert in their own field. Further, there are certainly many high-performing individual contributors who do not possess or desire to develop the soft skills needed to be successful leaders. We all know of many successful individual contributors, especially in highly technical or specialized fields, who were promoted for their technical expertise but were very poor at leading others. 


If organizations create a work environment where the only way workers can advance and earn significant pay increases is by becoming a manager, they create a dilemma for employees who want to increase their earning power but are simply not suited to leadership—limiting the number of employees who feel they can advance. The higher one goes in an organization, the fewer the opportunities, especially in light of today’s flatter organizational structures. 

Instead, companies are starting to realize the power of the “dual career ladder.” They are realizing that when the only mobility is upward mobility, they risk promoting the wrong people to leadership roles, which in turn, increases turnover and decreases engagement. Technical and engineering firms were earlier adopters of dual career ladders, but such a development strategy can be a positive asset to any organization. 

When companies create the means by which any employee can enhance their skills, master their current jobs, become crossed-trained in related roles, they directly impact morale, employee satisfaction, and their own agility in meeting organizational objectives. Such a strategy communicates to employees that the company cares about them and their growth.  It democratizes learning and development, which is something most employees want. 

How to Get Started with “Sideways” Development

  1. Begin with what you already know: What core values and behavioral competencies are important to all roles in your organization? How can you ensure every employee is exposed to developmental opportunities for these? For example, if your organization needs to increase innovation to remain competitive, what are the ways you can imbue that competency across the board?
  2. Develop a skills inventory: What are the key skills needed by your organization to thrive, not just today, but into the future? Where are your skill gaps? Who in the organization possesses these skills and how can you tap into their expertise so that it can be shared? For example, if your organization prides itself on its customer-centric reputation, what are the skills that are needed to continue to excel?
  3. Think job families rather than jobs: What jobs in your organization are related? Where would knowledge and experience in one job enhance performance in another? Take product knowledge as an example. Which jobs depend heavily on product knowledge for success? What sort of cross-training or job rotation can you implement so that employees receive enhanced product knowledge from multiple perspectives?
  4. Think about rewards before they become a question: What are such enhanced competencies, skills, and knowledge worth? What does not developing your employees cost? Decide what sort of increase in base pay or bonus people should receive for growing their value to the company. Develop plans for recognizing employees’ success.

Our world continues to grow in complexity and the need to respond quickly to rapid changes. When employees develop cross-functional perspectives and skills, they are prepared to take on new challenges. They develop fluency in a variety of disciplines and provide their organizations with valuable flexibility.

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