I know one employee who started as an administrative assistant right out of college and showed the ability to go beyond that role. She moved into finance, and then from finance into project management, and from the project management office into strategic operations. From strategic operations, she became chief of staff to the CEO — then jumped companies to become chief operating officer. It took her 30 years to travel that journey, but she did it — all without an advanced degree.

Part of what made her journey possible was a set of managers, human resource (HR) business partners, and leadership development professionals who were thinking strategically about career progression. They saw her potential, and they pursued it. Like that team, companies need to take a long view of people development — and individuals must have the courage to test and try new roles.

Offering internal career mobility retains employees who otherwise might depart to pursue their professional growth and advancement. But with limited rungs on the company ladder, how much career mobility can a company offer? A lot, it turns out, if we replace the ladder with a lattice — an experience framework for enabling employee mobility.

Here’s what I mean by lattice. Based on the company’s organizational structure, there are different kinds of experiences a high-potential (HiPo) employee can have to fill out their enterprise-wide, end-to-end understanding of how the business works. An employee might explore what it’s like to work in other geographies, business units or functional areas. For general and administrative functions, that may mean more well-rounded professionals and, on the other hand, subject matter experts if an employee is moving into a position that requires specific knowledge, skills or abilities (KSAs).

In this way, employees progress through a lattice versus a ladder. An experience framework offers employees something powerfully attractive and differentiated — not just money, or a title, but a rich learning environment that challenges them and invites them to explore other facets of the business (and their interests).

Experience Develops Well-rounded Leaders

An experience framework does much more than simply enable employee mobility, and thereby (if done well) drive individual and organizational goals. An experience framework brings to life the skills we want leaders to develop; fosters the thinking and behaviors we want employees to cultivate; and develops expertise in tandem with experience to encourage personal growth (and thereby simultaneously benefits both the organization and the individual employee). It provides HR, learning and development (L&D), leadership and organizational development professionals with another tool for developing leaders at every level of the organization, those who can:

  • Lead themselves so they “own” their leadership style, demonstrate their trustworthiness and develop their resilience. Grappling with real-world challenges, appropriate to their level, helps leaders activate their self-awareness and emotional intelligence.
  • Lead others and build alignment around a shared vision, whether with those they report to or those who report to them. Mobility forces leaders to step out of their comfort zones and generalize to different contexts their ability to prioritize, delegate and inspire others
  • Lead the business (as appropriate for their role), aligning others around — and driving — the organization’s short- and long-term goals. A variety of experiences and exposure to different markets and/or parts of the organization give leaders a multifaceted understanding of the business as a system. As they weave in new experiences, leaders at every level will improve their ability to adapt as the environment changes, to navigate the external landscape, and to communicate a future strategy.

Whether leaders apply these learnings to their current role, their next role, or a role in a different organization, integrating formal learning and leadership development models with a structure for on-the-job experience elevates the trajectory of both their career and capabilities. They can manage a broader scope of role and make the nuanced decisions that often happen at upper echelons in an organization. They can manage people with a balance of efficiency and effectiveness, and deal with interpersonal relationships more constructively, by bringing an inquisitive, collaborative mindset.

Career Mobility: Programmatic Approaches

Career mobility can be enabled in a case-by-case manner, to meet the needs of specific individuals. Broader impact on retention, employee satisfaction, and improved leadership capability requires a more systematic approach that embeds the career lattice into the fabric of the organization.

One example of this is a job rotation program that intentionally gives a specific cohort of employees eight to nine-month stints in different areas of the business, integrated with training and coaching. Often, this cohort is a group of newly hired MBAs, or, in a technology or life sciences company, it can be new-hire Ph.D.s, M.D.s, pharmacists or other specialists.

After rotating through these assignments, individuals can select a role (assuming an open req and required budget, of course) that aligns with their career goals, focusing on an aspect of the business that’s of interest to them and for which they have the skills. The other net benefit, as noted above: when individuals reach the point where they select their role, they already understand the interconnections among different parts and functions of the business and see it as a system.

Other mobility programs intentionally move people across geographies to expose them to different markets. Those employees are usually identified as high potentials or successors to a critical role, and this is part of their preparation for stepping up. This sort of experience-based career mobility program expands not just the leaders’ own perspectives, but their ability to understand different opinions across markets and the globe.

Partnering to Enable Career Mobility

Managers, learning professionals, leadership development professionals and HR must partner to support the career mobility of their people. Not surprisingly, the larger the scale of the organization, the easier to implement programming for a broad and deep experience framework. There’s a higher volume of projects looking for project leaders, a higher volume of open requests for roles, and it’s more economical, and effective, to shift people around than to hire and integrate from the outside.

In smaller organizations, mobility opportunities can be more individually defined. Managers need to have robust conversations to glean what their employees seek in their careers and forge a strong partnership with HR to help drive towards that goal. Individual managers may lack line of sight across the enterprise, but HR has that visibility into mobility opportunities. If managers have that close, trusted relationship, they will have transparency into employees’ career aspirations which can help to accelerate their development.

In any size of company, training as a function needs to endorse, support, and drive the translation of a lattice learning opportunity into execution and results. Through skills development, we concretize leaders’ and employees’ experience, so that what they’ve learned is repeatable over time in a wide range of business contexts.

Even when encountering someone who doesn’t aspire to mobility, it’s still worthwhile to enrich that employee’s experience with a latticework of opportunities that challenges them and supports their career growth. Their path will differ from a future COOs. But if they are valuable enough that we would have considered them for mobility, then there’s value in helping them grow and develop.