Vertical vs Horizontal Career Progression

Career blog

By Sarah Prasad

The good old ‘career ladder’. The assumed upwards trajectory for anyone who shows promise and talent within their chosen field. Why do we continue to define success solely as vertical movement into ‘management’ or ‘directorship’, in a world increasingly agile and technologically advanced?

During our most recent HR Leadership Forums in Glasgow and Edinburgh we explored the vertical vs horizontal career development question. It transpired that each of us knew of instances where an employee has been promoted into a management role based on their technical merit, rather than their leadership qualities.

A Stamford Research showed that good managers improved the productively of their teams by 13% yet when we insist on primarily rewarding technical ability with promotion; talented individuals spend less time honing their craft, and more time managing people. To support them we may ‘sheep dip’ them in a generic management development programme, expecting them to emerge ready to be an inspiring leader. Yet, we know that it takes more than a few days of intensive training to develop all the necessary skills of a good leader.

As you would expect, the tech sector is ahead of the curve here. Many have two core paths of progression: management expert and subject expert. In an industry where technology and solutions are changing so rapidly, it is crucial to have technical experts who focus and hone their technical skills; and don’t spend time managing a team. The same could be said for many other industries.

Surely a real shift in business culture and organisational design is required to fit the new wave of talent?

Being the boss doesn’t appear to be a top priority for millennials. A study by Manpower (Millennials Career: 2020 Vision, 2016) suggests that financial reward, making a positive contribution and working with great people are the key aspirations, over and above managing others or ‘getting to the top’ of an organisation.

Therefore, opportunities providing breadth of experience and knowledge may well become a more attractive proposition, rather than the traditional vertical manoeuvres within a one particular specialism.

To support and build the next generation of workforce successfully, we need to accelerate the shift in our thinking. By celebrating and rewarding both vertical and horizontal career growth, we are letting the next generation redefine their goals, and unlock their potential.