Where Many Rivers Meet
Building Multi-Track Career Models that Work
In a world where attracting top talent is increasingly competitive there is certainly a case for focusing attention on that special and small number of company roles that are deemed critical to success. Those roles may well shape the agenda, define points of focus, and be responsible for creating much of the potential business value, but it is important not to lose sight of the fact that it is the collective performance of the whole employee population that ultimately delivers the actual results. In thinking of a suitable metaphor, I was reminded of the poem Where Many Rivers Meet by David Whyte. The title conjured just the right image for the way career models should combine the flow of capabilities across organizations to support strategic goals and individual ambitions alike with a force like “the mouths of the rivers sing[ing] into the sea”1.
The narrowly defined career paths of the past, that reward climbing a hierarchy of increasingly administrative general management roles, no longer fit with the leaner, agility-focused, diverse and dispersed operations of today’s companies. Nor do they fit with the expectations of an increasingly mobile, diverse, remote and ‘gig-minded’ talent pool of today’s society. More flexible career paths are the order of the day, yet in many cases the need lags behind the reality.
Clients often ask me what they should factor into their thinking as they evolve new designs that allow for multiple career paths, providing opportunities for a wide range of skill sets and capabilities.
The purpose of a multi-track career model is to ensure the necessary supply of talent to enable the creation and deployment of value to support company growth.
Multiple career tracks need to provide credible alternatives that are attractive, have equivalence and are recognized by the organizational culture as value adding. They need to balance a set of inducements that meet the needs of individuals, with a set of contributions that are required by the organization. It is worth emphasizing that career tracks need to be elusive and flexible enough to garner interest from the highest talent candidates, while having sufficient clarity of opportunity to retain good and great performers once they have joined.
Examples can be found in different industries as diverse as the military, banking, pharmaceuticals and fashion, providing proof points against which to test newly evolving models.
“It ain’t easy”
David Bowie2 wasn’t the only one dealing with life’s challenges. Companies have to confront a myriad of difficulties to ensure they have the talent that will grow the business. An attractive career structure is an important foundation to achieving that goal. In particular, the career structure has to address some practical realities of the global labor market:
- Scarcity of resources, especially in growth markets – increasing globalization requires new skills, yet some of the most experienced talent is based in markets where growth is slow or demand exceeds supply, while the pool of talent in new markets is often small
- Need for specialist resources – whether in sales or science, specialists are the source of uniqueness, and yet career tracks often mean the only route to seniority and higher rewards is to become a general manager, thus potentially cannibalizing the rare but critically important talent pool of specialists
- Managing tends to be more highly valued than doing – this is despite many leadership jobs being largely administrative with little role in making critical, value creating, resource allocation decisions
- Team formulation for growth in startups is different than that needed when business units mature. Leaders (especially) and team members for these two phases of growth need different skillsets and seek distinct rewards for satisfaction
- Avoiding building an overcomplicated and bureaucratic career system, that does not add sufficient value over and above its cost to the organization.
In addition, where there have been repeated cycles of downsizing it often means that individual capabilities have been stretched over ever wider ranges of responsibilities, adding to the challenges of keeping motivation high and unwanted turnover down.
Despite these challenges, the optimal outcome for any company in designing an effective and attractive multi-track career model is one that is built around a set of objectives that are aimed at balancing individual and organizational needs.
“the place where all the rivers meet”3
The purpose of a multi-track career model is to ensure the necessary supply of talent to enable the creation and deployment of value to support company growth. This requires the provision of career development opportunities that are sufficiently attractive to help recruit and retain the volume and quality of talent required. Career tracks are one mechanism to do this and provide a signal of how seriously a company takes individual development. The objectives essentially come down to providing:
- Credible choices of alternative career tracks. Credible means senior management behavior towards people on different tracks matches the expectations that have been communicated. Also, that equal importance is given to managing the different tracks through processes, systems, decision rights, and roles
- Different career tracks having clear and attractive employee value propositions. This means that at the most basic level, there are opportunities for recognition of accomplishments, progression in status, rewards and a rich source of personal development. Offering a variety of career tracks provides more opportunities for crossing over or breaking through functional ceilings where explicit requirements have been met
- Comparative equivalence exists between different tracks. In other words, people will see equivalence in roles on different tracks existing at similar levels across the hierarchy, without the sense of an unspoken caste system existing. An example would be the equivalence of fellows in the engineering track with, say, vice presidents in marketing. Obviously, this should include rewards that match relevant external benchmarks to reduce the number of attractive external alternatives that may be available.
- And, perhaps most importantly, cultural acceptance of the need for and relevance of different tracks as reflected in the norms, beliefs and behaviors exhibited by the organization as evidenced by access to peers and high-status individuals through involvement in inter- and intra-functional workgroups.
“Life is about balance….The pina and the colada”4
At its essence, there is a need to balance inducements and contributions to ensure an organization’s survival5. In modern jargon, this might be referred to as the Employee Value Proposition. When the balance is wrong, company performance, or even survival, can be threatened. For example, if Apple does not maintain sufficient inducements to retain and recruit the best engineers, the development of new products is likely to decline along with the performance of the company – despite that the managers of the company may be world class. The inducements that are provided operate within an external context such that attractive substitutes may be available to individuals from other companies, potentially making them harder to retain, like “two solitaries/ moving slowly apart”6.
The inducements individuals seek can be classified as7:
- Power/ influence
- Achievement/ recognition
- Personal growth
- Extrinsic rewards
The contributions an organization seeks look somewhat different8:
- Willingness to join or remain within the company
- Motivate others
- Generate value
- Dependable performance
- Innovative and spontaneous behavior
So, we can see career tracks require a rethinking of a complex array of inducements and value proposition elements to ensure they are balanced within and across different career paths.
It is “something feasible, obtainable”9
Many companies over-simplify the development of career structures by treating them as solely a skills issue. They develop complex tables of competencies to describe the different skills that are required to cover the various types of work that need to be done and then group these skills into career tracks. This is useful, but insufficient given the differences in expectations between employer and employee. It is not enough to know what skills are needed, it is also necessary to create a model that takes into account all the different expectations and needs to ensure the right talent is acquired and retained.
There are many examples of organizations that have developed multi-track career models that go beyond check-the-box competency models. Done well, they find a good balance between inducements and contributions, providing status along with transparency about how far any given track can take a career before requiring a move into general management to make further progress. A few examples:
- Investment banks where sales professionals and research analysts have separate but highly rewarded and regarded tracks
- The military has combat and non-combat roles, with limits on how senior one can become in a non-combat role
- Most large consulting partnerships have client facing and non-client facing career tracks. Non-client facing staff will not always achieve an equity partnership status, but broadly comparable non-equity roles are provided for non-client staff and those consultants who have valuable technical skills but are less well suited to client development activities
- Pharmaceuticals, engineering and software companies often have tracks for scientists and engineers that allow progress within functional career paths
- In the fashion and advertising industries there are examples of successfully bringing together creatives and business managers, often in parallel tracks that reach to the most senior leadership positions.
So, to quote the poet Louis MacNiece, “If it is something feasible, obtainable, / Let us dream it now”9. But I would say, let’s go beyond dreaming and move quickly to build career tracks that meet the needs not only of the few deemed to be critical, but the many who actually deliver the value.
If you are focusing on strengthening your employee value proposition and career model, let’s chat. We can quickly provide you with insights into where you should be focusing attention. Redwood Advisory Partners has decades of experience supporting clients through the design and implementation of organizational transformations, including employee engagement and career systems. Follow or connect with the founder, Stephen, on LinkedIn (where you can find other articles in this series) or visit www.redwoodadvisorypartners.com. You can contact Stephen directly by email at [email protected]
1. Where Many Rivers Meet, David Whyte
2. Song by Ron Davies and covered by David Bowie on the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
3. The Sea in Where Many Rivers Meet, David Whyte
4. Seriously….I’m kidding, Ellen DeGeneres
5. Organizations, James March & Herbert Simon
6. Huaras in Where Many Rivers Meet, David Whyte
7. Leadership in Organizations, Gary Yukl quoting research by McClelland, plus this author perspective
8. The Social Psychology of Organizations, Daniel Katz & Robert Kahn, plus this author perspective
9. Autumn Journal, Louis MacNeice