At my new favorite blog, they're talking about ways to define career success beyond the traditional "ascend into managment" route. Among other things, Kathy suggests that companies need to seriously consider career "advancement" strategies that reward individual contributors by allowing them to remain individual contributors. She points out--rightly so--that many people are forced to make a trade-off between work that they love and advancement. "How about a Venn diagram, rather than a vertical organizational chart," she asks.
I think that there are actually two threads of thought going on in Kathy's post. The first is "how do organizations define and reward success? "The second is how do individuals define their own career success? Two interesting questions, I think. . .
On the organizational level, I'm brought back to Buckingham and Coffman's conclusions in First Break All the Rules. They ask the old Peter Principle question--Why do we keep promoting people to their levels of incompetence?
My answer is that it's because we insist on believing that managerial skills are just some advanced form of individual contributor skills. That somehow your experiences as a programmer would somehow prepare you to supervise other programmers. Yet time and again we see that this is not the case and that, in fact, the talents it takes to be a good manager often have nothing to do with what it took for a person to be an effective individual contributor. Unfortunately, though, all too often it seems that organizational rewards, respect, and kudos all go to those who "advance" into management.
Now Buckinham and Coffman have a solution to that problem--they say that companies should "create heroes in every role."
"Make every role, performed at excellence, a respected profession. Many employees will climb the conventional ladder, and for those with the talent to manage others or to lead, this will be the right choice. However, guided by meaty incentives, many other employees will decide to redirect their energies toward growth within their current roles."
Their essential argument is that excellence depends on employees in EVERY role focusing on their individual areas of talent and expertise. They suggest a number of ways for companies to address this issue, including using what they call "broadbanding," an approach to pay that rewards individual performance by creating broad, overlapping bands of pay with the top end of one role overlapping with the bottom end of the role above. One of the benefits, they argue, is that it slows the "breathless climb up," forcing employees to seriously consider if they want to move into a different role within the company because to move to a vastly different role would actually entail a pay CUT.
So from an organizational perspective, for those who choose to be really thoughtful about what they do with their staff and how they use them, there are ways to move out of the traditional definitions of success and create alternative paths for employees. But Kathy's post also opens up for me some thoughts on how we as individuals define success.
She suggests that rather than using money or position as our personal yardstick, we should look at how well our current jobs match what it is we WANT to do. That is, I'm successful if I go to work every day and love what I do, regardless of the status of that job or how much I make.
I couldn't agree more with that sentiment and have lived that career advice for the past 20+ years. But I think that definition should be expanded to include things like:
- Is this work that leverages my particular talents and what I bring to the world? If I'm engaging in tasks that I'm competent to do, but that don't really use my greatest talents, then to me, my career is unsuccessful.
- Is this work that lets me learn new things, meet new people and participate in different projects? Whether I'm an individual contributor or a manager, my ability to keep a job and be competitive in it depends a huge amount on my ability to learn new skills. Given that most of us in full-time employment don't have a lot of time for outside education, work that lets me hone and deepen my skills is part of how I would define my personal career success.
- Is this work that lets me live my most important core values? For me, creativity, independence, integrity, an opportunity to have an impact on my wider world--these values are critical to my personal sense of having lived a successful life. If I engage in work that violates these values, then I don't consider myself to be successful.
Of course, in my perfect world, employers would define and reward success on my terms, developing an organizational culture that supports and rewards these things that I think determine career success. To my mind, both companies and individuals would benefit if we redefined success to mean helping employees find and feel rewarded by work that is interesting to them, leverages their strengths, allows them to learn and matches their core values. Think about the kick-ass customer service we'd provide if we received THAT kind of support from our employers.
**UPDATE--Fast Company has something to say about lateral moves, too. Of course, most of them mean moving on, but maybe some companies will get the hint.