Theres No Single Path to Career Advancement

A few reasons why approaching career advancement with a “career lattice” mindset is a solid strategy for boosting employee retention today

Shayne Thomas

Guest Contributor

For years, we’ve been trained (dare I say, brainwashed) to believe and embrace the idea of “climbing the career ladder.” This is especially the case for working professionals in the U.S.

The idea is simple: you start your career by getting your foot in the door, you work hard for years, and over time, after acquiring new skills, overcoming myriad challenges and hurdles, and being rewarded with a slew of well-deserved promotions, you eventually make it to the top of the corporate food chain. And while it may sound suspiciously like a “dog eat dog” mentality to career advancement and professional growth, it’s what many of us have been promised since we were young. In other words, hard work pays off.

But this makes a big and oftentimes incorrect assumption that everyone in the workplace wants to climb said ladder. True, there are many people in this world who have dreamt of leading teams and organizations to success ever since childhood. There are others, however, who simply don’t want that added stress of managing employee or being directly on the hook for driving business goals; they just want to play their unique—and important— role in achieving that success. And the truth this, both approaches to career development are perfectly fine.

So, at a time when many companies are faced with the troubling reality that 70% of high-retention-risk employees say they’ll leave their organization to advance their career—in one way or another—HR professionals need to get creative about how they approach career advancement and, conversely, mitigate unnecessary employee turnover. Why? Because three-quarters of employees who fall into this category say they simply have nowhere else to go in a company’s career ladder-driven environment. Therefore, if you haven’t caught on by now, the traditional “upward mobility” approach to career advancement just won’t cut it anymore.

That’s where this beautiful thing called the “career lattice” comes into play: it has a lot less do with climbing up, per se, and a lot more to do with climbing around in all directions—all while still making important, growth-oriented career progressions at every step along the way. Similarly, it’s another tool that HR professionals and managers can use to build a growth plan that invests directly back into an employee’s overall happiness and success. If you haven’t yet embraced this new way of thinking, it’s not too late. Here’s what you need to know.

Why the career lattice approach matters

At the risk of being redundant, it’s important to state the (what-should-be) obvious again: not all employees want to be managers, nor do they see people management as a meaningful part of their career growth. And it’s these people who shouldn’t be put into management positions in the first place because people who have no goal or desire to manage teams can easily get overwhelmed by it or stressed to the point of burnout, creating an unfortunate trickle-down effect that will almost certainly impact their teams in a negative way down the road. (And don’t forget, the number one reason why employees quit their jobs is because they’ve got a troublesome relationship with their manager!) For these employees, you’ve got to scrap the career ladder and usher in the career lattice; it’s a way to give non-management-minded employees a way to stay motivated, challenged, and excited about their careers by giving them more mobility internally to learn new skills and tackle new challenges.

Additionally, the career lattice approach is a really good strategy for improving communication company-wide. Take a step back for a moment. Visualize a ladder. What comes to mind? Something linear with only one way up and down? That sounds about right. Now, visualize a lattice. I bet you’re imagining something much more interlaced and interconnected. Here’s the funny thing: if you take these visuals and think of them through the lens of communication styles, you might see how these two approaches perpetuate, even if unintentionally, siloed vs. cross-functional communications. Therefore, if you want to break up communications “clicks” or boost cross-team collaboration, move people around between teams. You’ll quickly see how this kind of cross-pollination really starts to break down silos.

Lastly, a whopping 93% of young professionals say they left their last employee to change job roles entirely. First off, it’s no secret that millennials have a reputation for job hopping. Secondly, it’s been shown that they’ll hold around 10 jobs before the age of 32 (gasp!) and likely have about six different careers throughout their lifetime (double gasp!). This is the antithesis to anything reminiscent of a career ladder—and any businesses who believe that today’s generation of employees are happy and willing to start their career and slowly work up their respective chain of command are, forgive the bluntness, simply not up with the times. To keep young talent engaged in your business—and equally in their work—you’ve got to give them the flexibility and, more importantly, the opportunity to move around the business and grow their careers in a more-than-likely non-linear way. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when your employee turnover numbers continue to climb. (You can’t say we didn’t warn you…)

How to build a career lattice in your company

By now, you’re probably thinking this entire career lattice concept can make a world of difference for your business, especially if your primary approach to career advancement still plays in more siloed sandboxes. However, for many of you, this might feel like a big—or even massive—departure from your current comfort zone. Totally fine if it is. So, to help you get moving in the right direction and improve your efforts around employee retention, here are a few tips for implementing a career lattice approach in your organization.

  1. Communicate opportunities: When new roles open up within your company, make sure your current employees are the first people to know—and, if you want to add the cherry on top, give them advanced opportunities to apply before opening up those roles to the general public. A great way to do this is by creating a central location via your talent management solution (if you don’t have one, Cornerstone can help with that!) where employees can easily search and apply for current openings. While you’re at it, regularly send out emails or other notifications whenever new roles open up. The big idea here is to remove all barriers that make mobility within your company feasible.
  2. Learning and development: We’ve talked a lot about the importance of learning and development—and we’ll say it here again: by giving employees opportunities to build and grow their careers laterally within your company, you’re also giving them a priceless opportunity to learn new skills and grow personally. This also means supporting them with learning and development programs to succeed in their new role. Sure, they may not fit the tried-and-true profile of a specific role when they move into a new position; however, if you support them in their development, they can quickly gain the necessary skills and eventually exceed even your wildest expectations. Remember, today’s employees are interested in charting their own growth plan; if they are motivated to take on a new challenge, there’s a good chance they’ll be motivated to break through any pre-existing learning curves a lot faster than you might expect.
  3. Employee-driven growth: At a time when many businesses are taking drastic measures to streamline and automate the performance review process—in our opinion, making it cold, impersonal, and wildly unproductive—the career lattice approach encourages you, almost by default, to engage employees in charting out their own growth plan. Sure, the challenge here is that this is not a one-size-fits-all process, which means that HR teams and managers may have to do a little more heavy lifting. However, the extra work will pay off in the long-run. By regularly setting goals, providing feedback, and working one-on-one with employees to realize their career objectives or carve out new entirely new opportunities of their own, you not only put them in the driver’s seat of their own career path but also show that you’re there to support them every step of the way. This will work wonders for employee retention, especially for younger talent.

So, if we haven’t convinced you by now as to why the career lattice approach to career advancement is so important, let me leave you with this: 94% of employees say they would stay with their current employer or in their current job if the company invested in their careers. The writing is on the wall—creating more opportunities for your employees to succeed in all directions within your company will make a world of difference in terms of employee retention. We’ve given you the basics here to succeed, but this is just the beginning. Be sure to talk to one of our experts to learn how Cornerstone can help you build a high-performing, career lattice-minded organization today.

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