Why do we work – when organizations care about careers

In the last post on Career Stages, I described a few key attributes for evaluating career progression that organizations and/or individuals need to take care of if they want to effectively manage the career, esp. of their senior employees. Low engagement level, ‘through others’ contribution mode, and # of real working hours are key points an organization need to care about if they want their senior employees to contribute significantly.

The definition of ‘senior’ is vague, and will vary from company to company. However, most companies know their ‘senior’ employees, and most ‘senior’ employees know they are ‘senior’, and so we don’t need a precise definition for now! J

So what can an organization do?

  1. Upgrade recognition and project assignment systems: Most senior people (by above vague definition of ‘senior’!) are asset to the company. They have contributed a lot to the organization in the past and have gained immense domain knowledge that they are always eager to share and give back to the organization. As they meet their basic needs from the job (personal security, financial stability, health and well-being, etc.), their needs change, and they seek higher levels of fulfillment from the job (see the starting post of this series – career and needs heirarchy). Reward and recognition systems need to provide fulfillment, and assignments need to be more complex and impactful to keep them challenged and engaged. Organizations need to change their reward and recognition systems as well as project assignments to cater to these senior employees.
  2. Track engagement levels in addition to attrition rates: As mentioned in the last post, we become change averse as we get senior. Mostly, the reasons are personal – too much at stake on personal front, and too much to learn/unlearn. This reduces attrition at this level in the short run. Since attrition is used as a fundamental indicator of employee satisfaction in most organizations, lack of attrition gives organization an excuse to shift their career development focus elsewhere. This can lead to careers going off-track (from organization perspective) and employees getting disengaged from organization’s broader goals. Such disengagement will cause loss of productivity and attrition in long run. Organizations need to measure and track engagement levels of employees, which is a leading indicator of employee contribution, rather than only attrition, which is a trailing indicator. Organizations need to continue to show to employees that they care about their growth and are willing to invest in them.
  3. Fix performance management models: As I wrote in a previous post on career paths for senior IC, most companies have a (flawed) performance management system that celebrates individual achievements of results and undermines contributions to others’ success. Since senior people contribute ‘through others’, performance reviews stop being meaningful indicator of real contribution to the organization. When these senior employees have reports (most of them will have), situation is mitigated slightly because the managers get credits for the performance of their reports, but this is still an incomplete performance review. This leads to employees being unclear of their full contribution and hence having compensations unaligned with real performance. Most people also use the performance reviews as their career growth measure and tie their happiness to it (see happiness and career success), and such incomplete reviews lead to unhappiness and stunted career growth. Organizations need to fix their performance measurement mechanisms and overall process as applicable to these senior employees.
  4. Create and recognize horizontal growth opportunities: Most organizations still define career growth as vertical growth (promoted to next level in the hierarchy), rather than horizontal growth (moving in the same level but different and challenging responsibilities). This means that smart people hit a ceiling where there are no more positions at the top to be filled. Since horizontal growth is never made a priority or given the importance, these people get stuck in their career and are forced to take other paths (leave the company, pursue higher studies, find satisfaction in non-work activities, etc.), all of which reduce their contribution to the organization. Organizations need to promote more horizontal growth and move people around in lateral positions, and recognize them for the same.

Many organizations do many of these things, and reap the benefits. Other organizations create a highly-paid, disengaged (and sometimes cynical), and underutilized workforce and lose their edge.

Even when organizations don’t focus on careers, individuals themselves can take many steps to avoid getting into this situation. I will discuss some of those in my next and final post on the subject. Stay tuned.

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