Monday, July 19, 2010

Trajectories Or Where is the Over-Qualified Employee's Career Headed?

In digging around LinkedIn’s questions, I discovered a thread from 2008-2009 where people specializing in Human Resources discussed the issue of hiring the over-qualified. The long and short of the discussion boiled down to trajectories -- whether the "over-qualified" person's trajectory was good for the organization.

This was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. I had met the concept of career trajectories several years earlier. It looks so right – on paper – and it felt so wrong. It took me a while to discover the missing element… the fatal flaw.

As I remember it, the career trajectories model goes like this:

What’s missing?

How would you classify the person who has hit the top of their career progression and is delivering above average quality – good to superior work with speed, flexibility and quality, while also supporting the team, mentoring others, and tackling difficult problems and projects? Where is their trajectory designation?

Let's start at the beginning....

It is common wisdom that organizations spend 3 - 6 or more months bringing new employees up to speed. That plus the hiring and on-boarding processes equals the Inward Trajectory.

As the individual build skill and as time passes most individuals move up… some more quickly than others… some move higher up than others. This is the Upward Trajectory.

At some point, many individuals realize that they have developed as far as they can in their current role and seek alternatives within the organization. This is the Lateral Trajectory.

If these individuals do not find lateral alternatives, they leave and seek other career opportunities. Of course, in leaving, they take with them the knowledge and experience they gain while working for this organization. In choosing to leave, they automatically place themselves on the Moving Out Trajectory.

When an employee feels that there are no career options in-house and starts shopping around the competition or seeking new career alternatives, they have started themselves on the Moving Out Trajectory.

Another Moving Out Trajectory appears when employees are not succeeding. This might be personal or health issues that appear over time. It might be that the work changed and the employee did not. It might be that the individual’s work was never more that acceptable and, over time, has not improved and may even have declined. The ubiquitous “performance plan” is the organizational way to CYA and ensure that they demonstrate their commitment to giving this employee a helping hand before giving them the boot.

Interestingly, it is possible to start on the Inward Trajectory, discover that there is a mismatch between the person, the work and the environment/culture/team that causes the individual to just not ever succeed. Here, individuals shift quickly from an Inward Trajectory to Moving Out Trajectory. This is the classic purpose for the first 3-6 month trial period. It happens and no one involved enjoys this period whether that is employee or supervisor or HR; it’s just plain no fun. However, if it is not managed, the organization ends up with an employee who is not quite making it for years and years. While they may have gained years of longevity with the organization and may have seniority, they are not the highly-qualified senior employee. These are very different species (the classic “dead wood” that every new manager wants to remove… and seldom can).

Look at the model one more time. Do these trajectories cover all the options? If not, what is missing?

The vast majority of workers, that’s who!

To some extent we all continue with an upward trajectory as we gain experience and skill. However, at some point, we all come to the top of our field. We may never be “the top” individual acclaimed by the world as “the expert” in the field. However, at some point we are the person or one of a small group of individuals in our organization with the most experience (not the same as years) and knowledge. We have become the go-to person for solving problems, getting things done quickly and well, tackling the unusual and difficult work tasks, projects, etc. If we love this work and are not interested in moving into management, we have hit a ceiling. What trajectory is this?

One that is not shown... the Master Trajectory.

I would submit that this is the Master Trajectory… as in… this person is master in their field, loves the field and continues to learn and develop within that field. They are growing in all directions building skills that create new connections with the organization, developing new relationships inside and outside the organization, enjoying mentoring and coaching, picking up special projects and working on the most difficult problems that require a unique breadth of experience.

This trajectory has been ignored and even devalued. Yet, this is the employee that most organizations work years to develop… and then ignore, devalue, and even release from employment simply because they are the highest paid individuals in their field who are not managers.

Many HR experts and organizational leaders say that this employee is too expensive to retain.
  • Where’s the expense?
    • In-house training? They continue to receive training as new tools and methods roll out. However, they also are often the subject experts who help build the new training, support it by delivering it, write or proof the documentation, and support the tool changes on-the-job as mentors or team leads. (Value-added services at no additional cost to the organization.)
    • External training and/or college degree program funding? To the extent that an organization provides funds for external training, these individuals are probably lined up to take advantage of these opportunities. They love their work and want to improve. To the extent that the organization does not support external learning opportunities, these individuals are funding their own. Again, they love the work and continue to want to learn and grow.
    • Professional organizations and networks? Yes, this group probably is working the professional networking opportunities, writing for professional magazines, making presentations, and asking their organization to co-fund this effort, to the extent that this possible. Typically, this cost is very small.
    • Technology? There are two paths here… two different ways that organizations fund technology for highly-experienced individuals. First is one that we have already seen, the times when the organization does provide them with the newest technologies depending on them to dive in and learn it, figure out how to apply it to their work and then support transition and training. Alternatively, these individual may be the last to get the new equipment and tools (a) because they are most experienced with that equipment and someone needs to continue to work with it, and (b) it is less expensive to train new employees directly into the newest technology rather than training them on first an older technology and then again on the new technology. (Notice that we now have an excuse for designating the experienced employee as “downward” mobile because they have not been trained in the new technology, when they have been given a role of supporting an old technology not because they can not do the new or are not willing to move to it but because someone else needs that training first.)
    • Salary and benefits? Their salaries are the highest among the “line staff” (i.e., non-management) with top-of-the line benefits that come with years of longevity and investment in the company to receive tenure or vested investment options. Yes, they are expensive… but less expensive that 80% of the organization’s management and executive staff. However, most non-management roles have a salary cap. Therefore, at some point, the highly-experienced employee’s earning potential flattens out. Therefore, they are often seen as the Dead-End Trajectory rather than as Mastery Trajectory.

Yes, that trajectory implies that once one has hit the ceiling (note that this is actually a financial ceiling rather than a skill/expertise ceiling), then one automatically bounces into the Moving Out Trajectory.

Personally, I find this a rather pessimistic view of work. It creates the assumption that once individuals can no longer earn role-level promotions (promotions from whatever the entry level role designation is to higher and higher designations), they have exceeded their capacity to grow with the organization and, therefore, need to be moved out of the organization. That it is wasteful for the organization to keep on individuals who are not changing roles (moving into management, moving laterally, or moving upward on their role career ladder).

I suspect that this Dead-End Trajectory mindset that is causing the loss of significant experience and skill from the organizations as their most highly-qualified individuals are encoruaged to leave. And, as a consequence, this trajectory makes many highly skilled individuals available on the recruiting market at a significant discount. For those organizations that can see beyond the fact that another organization “released” them and look at these resources as potential skill gains that could be bringing into their organization.

I also suspect that this loss is more expensive that just the loss of knowledge and less cost-effective than the dollar-for-dollar difference in salaries between a new hire at the entry level and retaining that experienced employee at the top of their salary scale.

This isn’t my field. Someone with experience in this area needs to do a study and define the costs… or at least create a model that helps organizations see the true financial cost of this transaction. But I may try my hand at modeling the costs here -- later.

Meanwhile, consider your own career…

What’s your trajectory? Do you define your career trajectory differently than your superiors do? Than your HR department does? If so, you may be among the “highly-qualified”, “over-qualified”, and possibly, the unemployed and unemployable.

The Performance PI

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