Dan Ward on Where Did That Job Go?

Photo of Dan Ward, author of PositionedThe following is a guest post by Dan L. Ward, coeditor of Positioned: Strategic Workforce Planning That Gets the Right Person in the Right Job.

Most of what has been written about personal career management is based more on the way theorists think the way things have been in the past and the way they believe things should be – a logical, linear approach that assumes people move from job A to job B to job C in some sort of logical progression. We still hear discussion about the career ladder, career paths, etc.

Some authors have recognized that traditional career ladders look more like stairmasters, and all that huffing and puffing might give you a nice buff body and help you become very well suited to remain where you are, but will probably not really get you somewhere else. Dan Pink, in his latest book, To Sell Is Human, suggests jobs will require ever expanding broad-based skills and that following traditional disciplines could even hinder career progress.

So in an ambiguously defined career environment it might be worth taking a few minutes to see how opportunities actually move through an organization. Here is the traditional view of a typical vacancy cascade:

Graphic showing vacancy cascade.

Graphic courtesy of Dan Ward

In the example, the initial vacancy is generated when someone left (employee A.) In a domino effect, the resulting vacancy cascaded through the organization, creating subsequent vacancies until the cascade stopped due to an opening being filled by a hire from outside the organization.

In these traditional promote-from-within organizations, an initial opening would generate five to seven internal opportunities (based on AT&T/Bell Labs Interactive Flow Simulator workforce research studies done in the 1970s.) In this example, the departure of Employee A created a cascade of two promotions, two lateral moves and one external hire. This type of movement happened whether the initial vacancy was created by the departure of an incumbent, as in this example, or the initial vacancy was the result of creating a totally new position.

In today’s organization, Vacancy A is as likely to be filled by New Employee F as promote from within policies are less common. This would mean one departure equates to one hire. The two promotional opportunities and the two lateral opportunities would never have been created. Those professional developmental opportunities would not happen for four incumbents.

Is Your Career Ladder a Stairmaster?

This impact of not leveraging opportunities for internal staff development should be intuitive, but this is typically overlooked in organizations that do not have a more strategic workforce perspective. Too often, from the management perspective, we treat turnover and staffing as a cost, not an investment – especially unexpected turnover. We want to fill the job quickly and move on. Every individual working in our organization will leave at some point, voluntarily or involuntarily. As leaders, we should neither treat that solely as an opportunity for investment nor a cost simply to be minimized. Staffing practices really need to be viewed as resource management opportunities that can always be optimized to leverage our human capital investment.

Jacket image, Positioned by Dan Ward and Rob Tripp with Bill MakiFrom an individual’s perspective, we should proactively recognize the actual human capital practices in place within our organization. The “our people are our most important resource” statements found within almost every organization’s vision and values statements should be taken with a grain of salt. Are those words backed up with action or are they just lip service? Each of us needs to regularly assess whether our career opportunities may lie elsewhere. The old career ladder, at best, has been replaced by a career scaffolding or lattice structure, or worse yet, a Stairmaster. Actual career progression may move up, down or sideways, and not necessarily within the same organization.

Dan Ward is associate department head, Cyber Intelligence and Intelligence Community Workforce for the MITRE Corporation.


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