By Nneka Orji
Most of us will be familiar with the typical career path within big corporates; the graduate entry role, the progression to middle management, and for a few who meet what are deemed to be the prerequisites, the senior management and leadership positions are within grasp. Career progression – in the traditional sense – has been valued by the pace at which individuals make it the top of the organisational hierarchy, and any move off the ladder or taking a non-traditional route has until very recently been viewed as detrimental to achieving the end goal. However things are changing; with technological advancement, evolving needs of the workforce, and a more diverse talent pool, the perception of a successful career is being challenged and new forms of career paths are being introduced. Could an unconventional career path lead to a more fulfilling and sustainable career?
According to the authors of “The Corporate Lattice”, not only is there value in reimagining professional progress as a lattice instead of a ladder, it is necessary to address the changing demands of today’s diverse workforce and the different landscape in which businesses operate. “In contrast to the traditional ladder, [the corporate lattice] is more adaptive, and therefore better suited to align with the changing needs, norms and expectations of today’s workplace”. Rather than focus on the next rung of the hierarchy, the lattice structure enables individuals to take on roles outside their immediate business areas – through secondments, international transfers, sabbaticals, and many other routes. By removing the barriers that exist in many organisations, this enhancement in mobility provides individuals with more choice around how they work and progress their careers.
A culture for diverse talent
While many employers see the benefits of career mobility – including greater employee engagement and enhanced productivity, some still grapple with redesigning career pathways and fostering the organisational culture needed to make career transitions work successfully for the individual and the organisation. However, it is no longer just a nice to have. Bentley University recently conducted a study, the results of which are documented in the PreparedU: The Millennial Mind Goes to Work report. According to the report, 66% of millennials surveyed are no longer striving for the top job but rather looking to start their own businesses. If their current employer does not offer the career experiences they are looking for, they turn their attention elsewhere. With employees now more able and better equipped to seek career opportunities outside their organisations, it is increasingly important for business leaders to address this need for flexibility in career models to ensure they attract and retain top talent.
This isn’t unique to millennials who are predicted to make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025. Last year LinkedIn found that across the 20,000 people surveyed across 29 countries, almost a third were looking for a new job. Yet the opportunities employees are seeking can sometimes be found in their existing organisations – if only lateral transitions, international secondments and the like were encouraged. How do these open roles get filled? With external candidates. According to talent management firm Cornerstone, HR professionals recruit externally for almost two thirds of open positions. It seems illogical to do so, particularly given the costs which are estimated to be almost twice the cost of recruiting internally.
The female pipeline also benefits from the lattice approach. While the enhanced flexibility provides caretakers (although changing, the majority of caretakers are female), perhaps less frequently discussed is the opportunity a “lattice mind set” provides for women to pursue those stretching roles which lead to leadership positions. According to a Catalyst study, women are still less likely to be put forward for such “hot jobs” – those with high visibility and are “mission critical”. Of those female and male leaders surveyed, 62% attributed a significant contributor to their career success to such high profile assignments, and only 10% stated that formal training programmes had contributed more significantly. While a number of factors lead to men still being offered such positions more than women, the current relatively low representation of women at senior levels (in which candidates for such “hot jobs” are identified) does not help. Is the only option for women to wait their turn for the next rung on the ladder to become available before they too can be considered experienced enough? Clearly not. With the lattice approach, and a concerted effort from business leaders to acknowledge the value of diverse experiences, this “wait in line” bottleneck in our talent pipeline can be eased further if not completely removed.
Plan, act, and communicate
So how can you make the most of the lattice career approach – seeking opportunities in that may require a sideways or diagonal move? Although the organisational framework might not yet exist within organisations to foster this lattice model, individuals seeking diverse and “stretching” experiences now must be proactive in realising their ambitions. There are three things to consider: your plan, when to act on the plan, and how to communicate with your key stakeholders.
Plan: Before plunging in head first, it’s important to develop a strategy. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the corporate lattice is that there is no one model that can be prescribed. The lattice model encourages and enables individuals to have greater accountability for their career paths; accepting roles that seem unconventional to others, but clearly support the individual in realising longer term ambitions.
Being clear on your desired outcomes from the move is a critical part of your plan, but just as important is deciding when to call time on your current role. Arianna Huffington’s recent announcement reminds us that “moving on” is an important part of self-development and there must be a clear sense of purpose. Moving because you’re fed up, while a valid reason, should not be the only reason to lead you to act.
Act: Once you have developed your plan and identified the right opportunity, don’t be paralysed by indecision. There will be those who question your move and even those who doubt that it will be beneficial to your career progression. While feedback can be helpful, some of it will be white noise. At the heart of the lattice approach is the individual – not just in terms of the recipient of the benefits, but also in terms of the driver. You are in the driving seat so don’t let conventional approaches distract you from your goal.
Communicate: Planning and acting won’t suffice if you are to make the most of a lattice career model; being able to clearly articulate your experiences and communicate your skills and value-add as a result of your diverse career path is the finishing touch. Anna Ranieri’s piece last year in Harvard Business Review provides some practical tips on how to address the communication challenge. Develop a narrative which brings together your valuable experiences – from the volunteering experience while on sabbatical, to the marketing role while on secondment. In a world where the lattice approach is yet to be fully embedded, being able to tell a coherent story about your unconventional career choices is a key factor for success.
In time the lattice approach will be the norm; top talent in every organisation will continue to seek opportunities to further develop and learn (the common trait of some of the most successful leaders), but rather than just consider external roles, they will be in organisations which offer diverse opportunities and encourage lateral moves. Career progression won’t be limited to forward moves; sideways moves and sometimes “pauses” will be recognised to be just as valuable if not more so.