Every once in a while someone says something that shakes you out of a deeply held assumption.
That happened to me a while back when listening to Ximena Baez, a student in the program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas, when she was talking about her capstone project. Baez works for a large company with stores around the country.
She pointed out that this company has lots of openings for store managers, so someone interested in starting a career can quickly be promoted to that position. However, there are few district and regional manager positions. So, it is unlikely that a store manager will be promoted, particularly because some of the district and regional managers are hired from the outside.
This structure creates a lot of turnover at the store manager level. After a few years, store managers get restless or bored, and they move on to another organization. It is expensive to replace store managers, both because it takes effort to find new people who have the potential to be good managers and also because they need to be trained.
What struck me about this problem is that most of us equate career development and advancement. That is, we assume that we train and improve our skills, because we want to get the next promotion. We even refer to positions where it will be hard to get promoted as “dead-end jobs,” which carries the belief that staying in that job is a failure.
In fact, there are many satisfying jobs in which promotion plays very little role at all. In academia, for example, professors enter the tenure track at the rank of assistant professor. Typically, the promotion from assistant professor to associate professor matters, because it comes along with tenure. After that, though, there is only one more promotion from associate professor to professor. Yet, most professors pay very little attention to promotions, because the job itself is full of continual reinvention. Successful faculty learn new research skills, take on new projects, teach new classes, and develop new collaborations. They develop in the job without concern for getting promoted to another rank.
It is not just rarified jobs with tenure that work this way. I know a number of entrepreneurs who have opened successful “lifestyle companies.” Their dream was to open a restaurant or boutique, and they did. Years later, they still own their small business, and love the work. They are not looking to expand into a national chain or to take over neighboring businesses.
Here are lessons we can draw from these settings to help companies with few real opportunities for promotion to develop employees and to create fulfilling long-term jobs.
One problem in many large companies is that they treat positions like store manager statically. That is, the manager is trained to keep the store running efficiently, and after that most training for store managers is aimed at updating procedures when changes are mandated at higher levels of the organization.
There is quite a bit of personal and professional development that can be done for store managers throughout their career. Organizations need to carve out time for employees to take additional classes (either those created by the organization or other professional development). The culture of the organization needs to shift to make it clear that people are expected to continue advancing themselves. Employees who take part in continuing education should be rewarded and compensated for continuing to develop their skills.
Part of the reason that store managers at large companies feel constrained is that there is a premium in many firms on creating consistency in the customer experience across stores. That consistency can constrain the degree to which leaders at individual stores feel like they have any autonomy.
Organizations need to explore ways to give all employees opportunities to direct some of their own efforts provided they still meet corporate metrics for success. There is a lot of opportunity for this kind of autonomy in relationships. Managers can work to create a good neighborhood within their unit and to expand their leadership skills in that way. In addition, they can foster better relationships with customers and clients, which helps managers feel a broader sense of satisfaction that their team/store/department is achieving its mission.
There is a tendency for large organizations to make innovation a special function within the organization. Innovation teams are created that are designed to find new products and processes that will help the business to grow.
Often, however, leaders in the middle have significant insights about the business that can be translated into important changes. Organizations need to provide more opportunities and rewards for individuals who find ways to engage with customers more effectively. Innovation programs of this type give employees more investment in the long-term success of the organization.
One problem with many large retail organizations is that their locations are spread out geographically. That separation combined with the hectic pace of work means that store managers have few chances to engage with peers. That can create a feeling of isolation.
Research suggests that having friends at work is an important determinant of engagement. For managers, that also means having friends who are peers. To encourage these relationships, organizations need to create regular opportunities for managers to gather to discuss common problems, to share best practices, and to maintain relationships.
The ultimate aim of all of these suggestions is to recognize that advancement is only a small part of a career. Organizations that create significant opportunities to develop their employees create a structure where people want to work for the long-term. Those organizations maintain their institutional knowledge and save on the high costs associated with turnover.