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Enabling Career Innovation March 18, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I’m a big believer in consistency and rules.  I like it when everything fits together nicely and a satisfying order arises.  I recognize that this isn’t always, or even often, possible, but I can dream.

I like consistent, orderly job descriptions.  By this, I mean a consistent way to define jobs within an organization along with the levels of those jobs.  While it certainly appeals to my desire for consistent order, I was recently reminded why it means so much to those whose jobs are caught up in those descriptions.

Whenever I’ve run an organization, we’ve used a simple job matrix, with skill sets across the bottom and experience levels up the side.  This is not uncommon in engineering and IT: a new hire comes in as a Thing, and with hard work and determination, becomes a Senior Thing, followed by a Lead Thing, and eventually, a Principal Thing.  Different companies have different naming conventions, but the model is similar.  Everywhere you go, you’ll find Lead Software Developers and Senior Systems Administrators milling about, and everyone knows where they stand.

I also make sure that there is a clear parallel management track that equates increasing management responsibility with peer levels on the technical track.  Thus, a Senior Thing that switches to the management track becomes a Team Lead.  If they like management, they can stay on that track and move up to a Senior Team Lead, Manager, and Director.

Here’s an important rule: if they don’t like management, they can switch back.

Over the past month or so, I’ve had several employees share with me how much they value the ability to switch back.  High-performing people will naturally want to try new things but won’t always succeed.  When they fail, they must be allowed a path back to try again.  With projects, that’s easy: go tackle a different project.  With career choices, that’s a lot harder (and scarier).

Too many organizations lock a person into management: once a manager, you leave the technical world behind.  As a result, some awful managers stay stuck in their job, much to the detriment of their people.  Moreover, some technical people who would make great managers never make the jump, fearful of what will happen if they fail. In many places, just asking to come back can result in career suicide.

When people have choices, coupled with recovery plans, they will try things and aspire to greatness.  If you take away the choices, or you fail to provide a path back, they will stagnate.  In a previous post, I addressed the need for innovation in our solutions; we also need to let our people innovate with their careers.  Foster both in your organization and you are well-positioned for success.

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