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Zigzagging your way through career progression

Most of us have grown up thinking our careers will resemble a ladder, that we’ll begin our professional life on the bottom rung, and make our way up through the ranks in sequential steps, from promotion to promotion, all with an upward trajectory. 

But if you’re still talking to employees about their career ladder, you might be unintentionally promising a career trajectory that just doesn’t exist anymore.

The issue with career ladders

The traditional career ladder is no longer a suitable way to look at work. It’s built on management bias, which assumes that the only meaningful opportunity to gain status and earn better wages is to be promoted into management. However, the reality is that work is increasingly performed across functional boundaries, with job roles becoming more variable. 

The career ladder also assumes a worker’s needs remain consistent over time. The last few years have shown us the opposite is true. Digital transformation is happening rapidly, with companies struggling to keep up with the skills needed to integrate the changes. Although 89% of all companies have already adopted a digital-first business strategy or plan to do so, many are flying “data-blind” with regard to the skills needed for digital transformation. Plus, the Great Resignation had us witness a record 4.5 million job quits in March 2022, and continues in full swing. It’s created a watershed moment for company culture, as employees seek flexible work arrangements and more work-life balance

The skill gaps created by rapid digital transformation and the shifting values in the work landscape can’t be addressed by simply offering more upward promotions. We need to be agile to keep up. 

A skills-based approach

85% of HR and business executives say organizations should create more agile ways of organizing work to improve speed and swiftly adapt to market changes. Seeing jobs as webs that combine hard skills, practical skills, human capabilities, and potential skills that could be developed, redefines your people’s work as something fluid that keeps pace with the work landscape as it evolves. 

On top of this, employees are more likely to stay in organizations that make decisions based on their skills and potential. 73% of employees say skill-based practices would improve their experience at work. People want to know that their relevant skills and talents are being put to good use, increasing their sense of fulfillment in the workplace. Skills-based organizations are 107% more likely to place talent effectively, giving employees a more positive workforce experience. 

A skills-based approach to jobs isn’t just beneficial for the employee. Employees in skills-based organizations are also more likely to innovate and anticipate change, responding efficiently when it comes. This shows that focusing on skills instead of job descriptions leads to better business outcomes, as they align with their organizations’ needs and their employees’ expectations to find personal value and purpose at work.

How we stopped climbing and started zigzagging

At Quadmark we have employees at different stages of their career, all with different aspirations. We’re also lucky to have incredibly skilled and experienced employees who love what they do and don’t want progression to mean people management. A couple of years ago we started to get more questions around how to progress. We've always had a history of encouraging our team to shape their own careers so we knew a traditional progression framework wouldn't work, but we weren't sure where to start.

We looked at lots of great examples of companies that open source their career progression frameworks. We tried to follow their examples, but kept getting stuck in the rigidity of levels and steps.

Rather than follow a traditional, linear career ladder, our Quadmarkers have always thrived in an environment that’s more flexible than rigid, more flat than hierarchical, and more fluid than structured. We knew it was possible to have an alternative to the linear career path, because we were already doing it. Our agile nature just needed to be formalized. 

We started looking at progression as more of a web and less of a ladder. Over the last year we’ve worked on capturing our approach which is grounded in three simple guiding principles:

  • Do the work that you enjoy 

We believe that work isn’t static, just as people are not static: All of us will look for new passions and development areas during our careers, so we help our people identify their passions and try to provide opportunities to explore new development areas. 

  • Play to your strengths

We care less about job titles and more about job satisfaction, about people liking what they do, and feeling valued for it. When people do what they’re good at and build on their strengths, they achieve great things and have fun along the way. 

  • Zig-zag your way there

The beauty of a lattice shape is that it extends infinitely in any direction. It’s full of options for development, progression and career trajectories. Every experience, course, project or program builds more skills and knowledge, ultimately shaping your growth path.

We took these three principles and created an employee-led growth framework. There are three core ways that you can grow at Quadmark: Responsibility, expertise, and versatility. 

  • Responsibility

We believe that you don’t have to manage people to manage more. Increasing the responsibility of a role could look like taking on and owning something new, managing a larger or more strategic project, coaching, mentoring, or leading. 

  • Expertise 

We also believe you don’t have to change your job title to gain expertise. Honing, skills, specializing in specific areas, taking courses, and teaching people what you know can all help you progress.

  • Versatility 

Versatility doesn’t mean you have to try new roles. New skills, working with different clients and products, and leading initiatives all build versatility, as well as joining a new team. 

The importance of managers 

Quadmark’s people managers are central in supporting their teams in achieving their progression goals. They are responsible for guiding their team through the process and support them to define their future aspirations. Every conversation with their team influences how engaged people feel with Quadmark, builds more trust and connects them with their team. 

We have created a development conversation guide to encourage our teams to reflect by asking nudging questions in three key areas around their strengths and weaknesses, how those apply to their current role and how these impact planning for growth. 

Discussing how strengths and weaknesses apply in their current role can help managers to capture personal development objectives related to what their people want to work on, and make sure everyone can maximize their contribution in their current role. By discussing strengths and weaknesses in regard to growth, managers can help their people to capture career development objectives. 

After Quadmarkers have discussed their strengths and weaknesses in relation to their current role and their future growth plans, they create an action plan. This could involve managers tweaking their people’s roles to play more to their strengths, involving them in a specific initiative, specializing in specific areas, and more.

To help them with their responsibility we use the three Es framework: Education, Experience, and Exposure. They share the same ratios as the 70:20:10 theory. Our philosophy is that 70% of our development can come from the experience that we are getting in our current roles. Every day is a learning experience as we grow, scale and innovate. This could be through on-the-job projects, special assignments, or providing coaching. We are always building our competencies and should recognize this as our core development.

We believe 20% of our learning and development can come from exposure opportunities, where we are stretching ourselves cross-functionally, externally through peer networks and professional organizations, through a mentor or visibility opportunities.

Finally, we encourage people to seek 10% of their development from education and training. We have a learning-at-work budget that can be used to invest in role-specific requirements. These will either be identified and run for the whole company, for a whole team, or they can be person specific. 

Where we go next 

It is time to redefine what career progression looks like and enable our teams to curate their own career path. Our role is to build their confidence to explore the possibilities and provide opportunities to help them navigate there. 

We think we will be increasingly driven to think about career progression from the perspective of skills and experiences versus titles and levels. What we do know for sure is that change is the only constant, and as long as we keep checking in with our people and adjusting based on their feedback, our approach to careers at Quadmark will continue to evolve. 

Listen to the audio version of this blog on YouTube.

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