Lack of vertical progression – a professional taboo

They say that it is either up or out. And looking at the empirical evidence, there is some truth to the statement. I many professional services firms, you are usually expected to make an advancement on the career ladder every 2-3 years.
The notion of vertical career progression as the only legitimate path is certainly not limited to professional services firms. But does common practice equal good practice? Question is, can organizations really afford to uphold this practice in a time where talent management is a the top of the agenda?
Let’s consider the alternative options. Horizontal career development is certainly an option already being explored in some organizations. Horizontal career development however many potential benefits which cannot easily be retrieved from the traditional vertical career movement. One example of this is the geographical career move, by which a professional transfers to another office but remains in the same job. Apart from the fact that the person can be very effective from day (after all, the job is fundamentally the same), the move can improve the intra-organizational network by strenghtening the internal collaboration between the two offices. At the same time, the person can experience all the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that new challenges often provides.
Other examples of a horizontal moves include the move between similar roles in different business areas, or between group functions and local functions.
Another very beneficial kind of career move is the cross-functional promotion. When HR is described as an “Ivory Tower”, it is partly because the HR career model is often isolated from the commercial track (and visa versa). A cross-functional career move – between HR and Finance, or between Product Development and Sales – provides additional benefits of increasing the level organizational learning and mutual adaption.
The most illegitimate career move is the downward move, the demotion. Demotion is the ultimate failure – you were not able to perform at the level you were hired or promoted to. In some organizations, demotion is even used as a way to silently encourage people to leave, to avoid the costs of involuntary termination.
Demotion therefore, is the ultimate professional taboo. However, consider for a moment which is better, wearing down a person who clearly can’t cope with the requirements, firing a beloved employee because he/she were inadequately staffed – or finding a more appropriate position for the person?
If managed properly, demotion can be a legitimate way of adapting to individual life cycles. For instance, a move from a management to a specialist role may not even be labeled as a demotion. However, to achieve legitimacy of alternative career movements, these paths need to be defined in the career model and clearly explained to the individuals affected.
To sum up, my point is that career models should not overemphasize vertical, upward progression. As noted by Csikszentmihalyi (1997), there is a clear link between the alignment of challenge and skill – and the level of “flow” of the individual in his/her current job.

People are different and pass through different stages in their life that affect their ability to perform. Organizations should encourage achievement and development, but build flexible career models that allow for customization.

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