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Riding the career elevators and travelators

Written by: Phil Whitman is Client Solutions Partner for GatenbySanderson’s leadership and talent consultancy
Published on: 10 Feb 2022

I first came across the term ‘career escalators and travelators’ while working with an international technology company on developing their leadership talent. While exploring how they managed organisational talent, the managing director described how some of their staff were looking to advance their career on an upward trajectory (elevator), while other staff were looking alternatively to specialise in a specific area and take more of a horizontal trajectory (travelator). In either scenario, staff were always moving forward and developing new competencies, expanding current knowledge, and improving their confidence.

Sometimes we can get stuck in thinking about career growth as linear or vertical with the phrase ‘moving up the ladder’ being particularly pertinent. While many employees work up towards a leadership role, climbing the ladder isn’t the only way to progress your own career, or those of your team. This concept of career travelators and escalators has implications for individuals planning their next move, as well as HR and learning and development teams in local government, as they look at how to effectively manage talent.

Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis in their excellent book The Squiggly Career take this concept a step further by exploring how we define success in our careers and suggest the career ladder is a redundant way of measuring success. Instead, lots of people have had a ‘Squiggly career’ which isn’t defined by a career ladder but can often take different paths. As they say: ‘Ladders are limiting – they limit learning, and they limit opportunity. If organisations don’t lose the ladder, they will lose their people.’

They go on to suggest that reinforcing the concept of a career ladder means that organisations will lose people – often the people that are always adapting and open to opportunities that come their way.

The legacy of the career ladder however is all around us; in organisations we work for, the conversations we have, and heavily embedded within our psyche. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increase of hybrid working models, and our new hybrid professional identities mean that we can re-evaluate our career pathways. People have had the time to reflect on what they want from their careers, leading many to re-examine their personal aspirations. We need to reset our individual and corporate thinking around career pathways to meet the diverse aspirations, experiences, and personalities in our organisations.

Whether it’s looking at career pathways from the perspective of ‘elevators and travelators’ or ‘squiggly career’ journeys, there are vital lessons to be learnt for employers looking to attract, develop and retain talent. According to the 2018 Brandon Hall Career Study, employers with a clear career development framework that allows employees to change career direction – horizontally, vertically or into an entirely different career stream or level – have a competitive advantage. They are four times more likely to see increased employee retention and twice as likely to see increased employee engagement compared to organisations without clear career paths.

For organisations thinking more laterally around career pathway development, here are some useful points to consider:

• Mapping of flexible pathways

A career path does not mean that employees are necessarily pigeonholed into specific roles and their progress within the organisation is restricted. In other words, there needs to be flexibility and adaptability as far as career paths are concerned that can accommodate horizontal moves (travelators) as well as horizontal moves (elevators). 

• Assessing aspiration, ability, engagement

As a leading public sector services firm with a particular expertise in executive assessment, one of the key areas GatenbySanderson look to understand is an individual’s personal and professional aspirations. It’s all too easy for leaders and managers to make ready assumptions about an individual’s aspirations and motivations when the real skill is to investigate motivations more fully. We normally use a model of assessing three key areas: aspiration; ability and engagement.     

• Identifying ‘development orientated-relationships’

Having a rich network of relationships enables leaders and staff to tackle new challenges with confidence. Varied career pathways can be supported by developing networks of ‘development-orientated relationships’ which can take the form of mentoring, shadowing colleagues in other departments or the creation of common interest groups amongst employees. Looking externally at other groups and networks enables a richness in personal development and allows us to learn from a diversity of experience.

At a time when organisations have adapted and resourced their organisations more creatively and dexterously than ever before, now is a good point for leaders to be as agile in their approach to career development. There is a genuine appetite to lose the narrow and often divisive view that up is the only direction for the chosen few, and create more sideways, crossways and squiggles for the many.

Phil Whitman is Client Solutions Partner for GatenbySanderson’s leadership and talent consultancy