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Rethinking Career Progression: Is It Time to Ditch the Framework?

In the fast-paced world of startups and the ever-evolving landscape of work, career progression frameworks have long been a cornerstone.

These frameworks, whether traditional, unified, or dual career ladders, have provided employees with a roadmap to navigate their professional growth. But as the nature of work changes, there's a growing sentiment that these rigid structures might be more of a hindrance than a help.

Enter Thomas Klein, a seasoned People expert with a rich background spanning from structured corporate environments to the dynamic world of startups, and current Head of People at PowerUs.

His radical proposition? Abandon the traditional career progression framework in favor of a more flexible, employee-centric approach.

The Traditional Approach to Career Progression

Historically, career progression frameworks have been the compass guiding employees through their professional journey. They've offered clarity on the skills and milestones needed to climb the corporate ladder. However, as Thomas points out, these frameworks often offer just a "sneak peek" into the requirements of different roles and levels.

Drawing from his early experiences, Thomas recalls a leadership program he encountered during an internship around 2014. The program, developed by his manager, aimed to mold interns into team leads within a span of 3-4 years. This was his first brush with a structured career progression framework, and it left a lasting impression.

"Knowing how those frameworks are usually built, you really need to think about the pros and cons because it’s a lot of effort with limited impact" Thomas reflects.

He emphasizes that while there's a need for guidance, rigid structures with theoretical skill descriptions often become outdated upon release. This rigidity can inadvertently push individuals into roles they aren't passionate about, simply because it's the only avenue to a higher salary.

Unified Frameworks and Dual Career Ladders

In a bid to address the limitations of traditional frameworks, the concepts of unified frameworks and dual career ladders emerged.

Thomas recalls being invited to a conference in 2018 to discuss career frameworks in a self-organized environment. He presented an adapted version of the dual career ladder, introducing a third track termed "manager in trial" or temporary project lead roles.

This approach was combined with career conversation guidelines, aiming to unearth the true aspirations and intrinsic motivations of employees.

However, Thomas believes that the real challenge lies in the evaluation's subjectivity, even in the most meticulously crafted frameworks. "The evaluation can be arbitrary, even when the CPF is done perfectly" he notes.

The Case for Flexibility

Thomas champions a departure from the traditional, advocating for a system that places the onus of career progression on regular, structured conversations between managers and their teams.

He recalls his time at an agency where career development was paramount since the company's value proposition was the skills they sold. Here, he combined the career progression framework with an approach that handed ownership of career progression to the employee. This involved a Google doc where employees could list questions about their current role and what they needed to progress.

Transitioning to a framework-free approach necessitates a shift in mindset for both managers and their teams.

Managers need to be trained to become adept listeners, skilled questioners, and empathetic advisors. Workshops and training sessions should focus on teaching managers how to guide conversations that unearth an employee's intrinsic motivations, aspirations, and skill gaps.

Role-playing exercises can be particularly effective, allowing managers to practice handling a variety of career progression scenarios.

For employees, training should center on self-awareness and self-advocacy. Workshops can help them identify their strengths, areas for growth and long-term career aspirations.

By fostering an environment of open dialogue, companies can ensure that even without a formal framework, every employee feels supported and empowered in their career journey.

Challenges of a Framework-Free Approach

While the idea of ditching traditional career progression frameworks in favor of a more fluid, conversation-driven model sounds appealing, it's not without its challenges.

The most glaring concern is the potential for inconsistency.

Without a standardized framework, there's a risk that career progression decisions might become arbitrary, leading to perceptions of favoritism or bias.

Employees might feel lost without a clear roadmap, leading to anxiety and uncertainty about their career trajectories. Additionally, in larger organizations, the absence of a unified framework could result in disparate practices across departments, creating confusion and potential inequities.

There's also the challenge of ensuring that managers are equipped to handle these regular, in-depth career conversations, which require a different skill set than traditional performance reviews.

However, Thomas's approach is rooted in the belief that employees, when given the right tools and guidance, can make better decisions autonomously, that benefit both their personal growth and the company. He emphasizes that to avoid inconsistency it is important to maintain regular conversations, and training, and give maximum ownership away.

"The ongoing conversation is better at supporting and guiding you. The promotion is a natural result of that" he states.

In the rapidly changing world of work, perhaps it's time for companies to re-evaluate the structures they have in place for career progression.

As Thomas suggests, a shift towards more flexible, conversation-driven approaches might just be the way forward to not only empower employees but also foster a culture of continuous learning and growth.


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