Wednesday, November 1, 2017

How career progression damages companies

Is "career progression" really necessary? Let us explore how the very concept wreaks havoc in organizations and damages the very thing it's intended to foster - value generation. To illustrate the point, I will use the example of four individuals from my own network.

Greg, the expert

A while ago, I received a text from Greg: "Do you know any company looking for a team lead?" I had worked with Greg. He really enjoyed development work and did a splendid job. "What happened?", I asked. We met. Greg related his story: "I had a talk with HR, asking for a raise. It got rejected, because I was already at the Senior Developer level. I would need to become team lead to get more salary, but there's no vacancy." He was sorely disappointed.
I probed: "Why do you want to be a team lead?" - "Obvious, to get more salary." - "But would it make you happy?" - "No. I hate the organizational stuff related to that role. But I got family - kids to feed." I shook my head: "You're not looking for a team lead role, you're looking for a way to earn more money?" He nodded. We discussed. "How about we find a company that's willing to pay developers as much as you intend to earn?" Long story short, Greg enjoys his developer role in another organization.

Greg's company lost a formidable developer, because "developer" was considered inferior to a management role - both in appreciation and compensation. The loss? A great developer who would never want to be a team lead.

Tom, the misplaced developer

Tom fared better than Greg. He was in a similar dilemma, but slightly more "lucky": He managed to receive a coveted team lead role, with the additional salary on top. Tom's team had high churn rates. He let his responsibilities slide and continued doing his former job, with a new title.

Tom was in a similar boat like Greg: He loathed the responsibilities of a team lead and loved technical work. He never bothered doing the things a team lead should be doing - for example, ensuring people had meaningful work, dealing with impediments or resolving conflicts.

Tom's company suffered a fate worse than Greg's: Instead of losing one developer, they lost an entire team, just because they weren't willing to admit that a great developer doing great development work can receive the appreciation and compensation that their ability commends without needing to be in a leadership role.

Sandy, the underpaid CSR

Working with Sandy was a pleasure. She was amicable, smart, knowledgable and extremely resourceful. It didn't matter what the customer's issue was - she would manage to find a satisfactory solution. Getting a team lead role wasn't difficult for Sandy, and she excelled in that role as well.

Over a cup of coffee, Sandy related that she wanted to switch out of Customer Service. I asked her: "You're great at your job, and you love what you do. Why?" Sandy confined: "CSR roles are notoriously underpaid. A regular worker close to minimum wage, the team lead's near-double salary might sound impressive, but it is still significantly below what others in the company made. If I could get into Engineering, my salary would rise by over 50%."

Given her repute for the company, HR agreed to move Sandy into Engineering as a team lead. She actually did well in her role - being a great organizer and people's person, her lack of engineering expertise didn't count for too much. A small fly in the ointment: Since Sandy had left the CSR's, complaining customers had a much higher churn than before.

Andy, who got it right

And then there was Andy. His job? Close deals and keep customers coming back. He was a classic sales person - and good at that, too. He never played the title game and didn't want to get dragged into titles, either. I asked: "Andy, you've been a salesperson for over a decade now, why aren't you interested in having your own sales team?" Andy leaned back: "I don't need to. My salary is linked to the customers I bring in, and as a team lead, I'd have less time to take care of our customers. I'd probably make less than right now, and the company would have less customers, as well."


Companies are great at setting up systems rewarding behaviours that are detrimental to their success. Corporate ladders are just one more example of that. By creating systems where people's personal goals can't be aligned with corporate goals in the most valuable, sustainable way, companies lose out on the ability of their most talented employees.

Regardless of whether a person's role is technical, business-oriented, customer-oriented, managerial or administrative - if they are happy and good at what they do, don't force them to take another position, title or whatever. Create a reward system which allows them to align their own goals with the corporate's intended goals - not with the designed, corrupted goals that would force them to either stop doing what they do best or to leave.

Winning companies encourage excellence, not gaming the system.


  1. I agree that the whole concept of career ladder/career path is outdated (if it ever was valuable, which I doubt). It would be good for individuals to be able to explore outside the "zone of excellence" though, and be encouraged to do so. Some people make good managers, others do not.

    I disagree with you on the rewards aspect. Excellence shouldn't be rewarded as it is reward in itself. What we need is decent compensation from the start, naturally increasing with inflation and experience. As Dan Pink says in his "Puzzle of Motivation" video, "get money off the table". The best volume (I've come across) on the damage that rewards do is Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards" where the title really says it all.

    1. @Tobias,
      thanks for the feedback.

      We might have different interpretations of the term "reward".
      Maybe what you mean is an "incentive", yet this was not what I was referring to. "Reward", to me, goes beyond the concept of actively planned result and stretches definitely beyond fiduciary aspects - just like the proverb, "Virtuosity has it's own reward."

      We anneal on the term as you state, "Excellence is reward in itself" - well, except in systems which are designed to punish it, as you also reconfirm with the reference to Alfie Kohn's book.

      tl;dr: I agree with you.

    2. I took the liberty of exchanging the word "reward" with "encourage" to remove the idea of active incentivization.