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5 reasons why Career Ladders don’t have a place in your talent management strategy.

In the past, we talked about career paths as a ladder. People start at the bottom and work their way up through the ranks, with each promotion representing a step on the ladder towards success. However, as business, society and employee expectations have evolved, so too has the concept of a career path.  And if we really want to build engagement, performance and retention, this is why I think Career Ladders don’t have a place in your talent management strategy.


The corporate career ladder has shaped career frameworks for the past thirty years (at least).  The underlying belief was that people should progress through different jobs, to gain experience, and gradually move into more senior roles.  HR professionals even “mapped out” career paths, identifying jobs and the order in which people needed to move through those jobs.  That very neatly aligned with Competency Frameworks which told you the competencies to develop in order to move into those jobs.  Neat, Tidy and well-controlled…..


But the world of work has changed:


  • Organisational structures are, on average, 25% flatter than they were 20 years ago.
  • Workers are less bound to physical locations or set hours. 
  • And the work itself is less routine – project work has increased 40-fold over the past 20 years


If Career Ladders don’t have a place in your talent management strategy, then what instead?   A career lattice is a more fluid approach to career development, where individuals have the opportunity to move both laterally and vertically. This means that rather than moving up one specific path, people have the option to gain new experiences and skills through a variety of different roles, allowing for a more diverse and flexible career.  And it’s this career lattice that should replace the career ladder in your talent management strategy!


If your career framework is built on the assumption that people should move between jobs to gain experience and skills, then you need to change it (sorry…. not sorry).  


Here are 5 reasons why we need to break away from this traditional thinking and really embrace lattice career frameworks:


  1. The ladder’s “one-size-fits-all” approach assumes employees are more alike than different and want and need similar things.  These days people want a career that allows them to have some level of autonomy and control over their work, including the ability to make decisions independently, control their schedule, or work in a way that aligns with their personal preferences.  People also want work that feels meaningful and provides a sense of purpose. This could be through working in a field that aligns with their personal values, helping others, or contributing to a larger cause.  


  1. The traditional career ladder often only allowed for upward mobility within a narrow range of roles and responsibilities.   The modern workforce constantly evolves, meaning less job security and stability, making it difficult for employees to plan and climb a traditional career ladder.  In short, the roles that feature on your traditional career paths may not be available in the near future; they may become obsolete or change so much.


  1. The pace of technological change and the emergence of new industries means people need to develop a wider range of skills.  The traditional career ladder may not provide the opportunities for skill development that many employees need to stay competitive in the modern world.  Rather than being limited to a narrow set of skills, a lattice approach offers individuals the chance to learn and grow in a variety of different areas. This can help them become more well-rounded and versatile employees, which can lead to increased opportunities for advancement and career satisfaction.


  1. Increasingly organisations have become more matrixed in their design – flattening hierarchies and breaking down silos that had historically been led by functional leaders.  The skills that make people successful in a matrix organisation include broad enterprise thinking and the ability to collaborate cross-functionally.  Career paths – and indeed the broader talent system – designed to give people that enterprise experience must include horizontal and cross-functional opportunities.  In this knowledge economy, performance is less about what you deliver, and more about how you get things done through your network and enterprise knowledge.


  1. A traditional career ladder focused on specific jobs to gain experience in your functional area of expertise.  These days spending years waiting for promotion after promotion within a company is something people don’t have the time for.  But with a lattice mindset, opportunities to make an impact come in the form of projects, secondments, or short-term opportunities.  Everything moves at such speed, employees’ expectations of growth, impact and opportunity have shifted and waiting for a “proper job” is just too slow.  Let’s face it, people are also not afraid to leave and start again if they are bored or feel misaligned with the company’s purpose or culture.  


However, there are some challenges associated with a career lattice as well. For one, it can be more difficult to track progress and advancement, as there may not be a clear “ladder” to climb. This can make it harder to set goals and measure success. Additionally, it can be challenging to balance the desire for growth and development with the need for stability and consistency.


These days there is no single route to success. Instead, people want a more personalised approach to careers, where they can focus on their strengths, passions, and areas of interest, increasing the likelihood of personal fulfilment and Meaning from work.  Traditional Career Ladders don’t have a place in your talent management strategy any more.  Whereas a lattice approach acknowledges there are many different types of success, and that success can look different to different people.  A more inclusive approach for all employees,  even if they don’t fit neatly into a traditional career path. 

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