By: Joanne Cleaver, author of The Career Lattice (McGraw Hill, 2012)
The career ladder may be firmly planted in American culture as the default metaphor for success, but it doesn't work any more for most people.
What does work is the career lattice: a flexible structure of strategic lateral moves that keep employees growing and engaged at their current level of responsibility and pay. And while Darwinian ladders save the biggest rewards for those who make it to the top, the lattice holds the promise of ongoing employee satisfaction at every career stage and age.
Balancing the Multigenerational Workplace
As your organization considers adopting lattices as your primary mode of employee development, here's how the business case plays out for the three biggest demographic groups currently employed: baby boomers, Gen X, and Millennials.
There's one thing that these groups have in common: they know they are on their own to set their career direction. As author of The Career Lattice, I estimate that about 30% of American workplaces offer developmental lateral moves.
The others? Not so much. A 2011 Accenture Skills Gap Study found that 68% of employees know it's up to them to keep their job skills updated. But they get scant direction from their employers.
While corporate CEO's say they want employees who nimbly anticipate tomorrow's opportunities today, they concentrate their training dollars on technical skills, according to Accenture.
The good news is that lattices can equip all employees with the insight to plot their next steps, making the most of opportunities offered by employers and those they pursue on their own.
Boomers Finish Strong
While leading-edge baby boomers are plunging into retirement, the trailing edge of this huge generation is facing the reality that their runway to retirement just got extended by about five years. An AARP study found that 77% of today's workers aged 50 and up expect to remain in their current jobs until they retire. Even the 9% who hope to change jobs want to stay in the same field. That means that the myth of "career reinvention" is just that: a myth.
Cemented-in-place boomers are also blocking the way for the next generation of rising talent. Lattices reconcile this tension by offering meaningful last-stage moves for boomers who want to make the most of a lifetime of experience, cultural knowledge and networks. Here are three lattice techniques for transitioning boomers laterally:
Training Guru -- One telecommunications company needed to open up a promotion for a restless, talented midlevel manager. The logical spot was occupied by a well-respected baby boomer with a decade to go before retirement.
Because he had extensive experience managing technical staff, senior management created for him the position of regional training director. He drew on his far-flung connections at technical schools and vendors and completely overhauled the company's training structure -- with terrific results.
Master Mentor -- With the advantage of generational hindsight, baby boomers are often in a position to assemble challenging and creative mentor groups that are aligned with the organization's culture.
In-house Consultant -- Baby boomers with long tenure are the go-to people for a reason: they know everybody and everything. Some organizations have created in-house consulting teams who swing into action for short term projects as well as emergencies.
Generation X in Waiting
Gen X -- today's 30- to 50-year-olds have the misfortune of being squeezed between the demanding baby boomers and the footloose Millennials. Supposedly at the peak of their earning years, Gen Xer's are also carrying student debt, houses with eroded equity, and childrearing expenses. They can't afford to let their careers stall. And employers can't afford that either, as Gen X represents the next group of top leaders. Keep them engaged and growing while you engineer genuine promotions.
Tech Tactics - These days, most managers need at least some experience managing technical teams. A short-term assignment co-managing a project with a seasoned tech manager can infuse a general manager with deep understanding of tech culture and success.
Intrapreneurs - When opportunities look scarce internally, Gen Xer's are likely to strike out on their own. Fertilize new ideas and retain rising talent by commissioning them to create and direct internal business plan competitions.
Flex Sets - Most employees expect flexwork arrangements, but Gen X has enough experience and influence to pioneer new models. If your organization has been flirting with 'extreme flexwork' arrangements such as job sharing, assign the project to a team of Gen Xer's. Ask them to come up with new ways to drive productivity through flexible work arrangements -- and give them the reins.
Millennials Lateral Naturally
Millennials -- today's twenty-somethings sometimes referred to as Gen Y -- take to lattices naturally. After all, they grew up with social networks, which are jet-fueled social lattices. Help them put a business focus on their lateral point of view so they can become confident latticers from the start.
Circle Mentoring - They'll do it anyway, so add some structure to millennials' organically formed peer groups and show them how to mentor each other. By rotating leadership, you'll quickly discover hidden talents and obvious development needs -- while building your Gen Y succession planning.
Mine Tech Talent - Looking for technical workers? There might be hidden aptitude among your millennials. Mix up teams to give all millennials hands-on tech assignments, with the aim of detecting those with skills or the willingness to learn.
Crossed Culture - Gen Y are more comfortable than prior generations with diverse co-workers. Be purposeful in assembling teams to create opportunities for cross-pollinating across cultures, with the aim of finding fresh solutions to perennial marketing, operations and communication challenges.
Joanne Cleaver is a nationally published journalist whose work has appeared in publications from Crain's Chicago Business to Working Mother to Good Housekeeping to Inc. She designed and managed Working Woman magazine's Top 25 Companies for Executive Women, then spun off that methodology to manage industry-specific research that measures and supports the advancement of women. Her strategic communication firm, Wilson-Taylor Associates, Inc., helps organizations and individuals figure out what to say to whom, through content design and development, and through media readiness. The Career Lattice is Cleaver's seventh book. Learn more at thecareerlattice.com.