Deepening Your Talent Bench: Horizontal Career Ladders

Historically, the pathway to the presidency in higher education has been through traditional academic ranks -- tenured faculty or department chairs becoming a dean, and then later a provost. But as Academic Impressions president Amit Mrig notes, "the competencies required to ascend the academic hierarchy don't necessarily match those required to lead increasingly complex organizations in an increasingly competitive marketplace."

Rather than increase reliance on the private sector as a source for future leaders, institutions may do well to take a cue from the private sector's approach to leadership development. To prepare for a globalized economy where talent, ideas, customers, suppliers, and financing will come from different markets around the world, the best-managed corporations like General Electric, IBM, and PepsiCo are intentionally requiring emerging leaders to manage major projects or even run entire divisions in different parts of the organization -- units that may be far outside their discipline or home town. This strategy of building horizontal career ladders not only builds cross-boundary collaborations and global connections, but gives these future leaders a systemic view of the organization.

Horizontal Career Moves

Versatile leaders develop transferable problem-solving and diagnostic skills that allow them to assess the strategic -- not just the technical -- implications of a given situation; when finely honed, these are skills emerging leaders can bring to a newly merged department, or in transitioning to lead a newly redefined department.

Larry Goldstein, president of Campus Strategies LLC, offers the examples of a rising star in the accounting office who is given an opportunity to direct an auxiliary business unit (such as dining services). "This is not the logical track of a payroll manager who moves up to a controller, then systems controller," Goldstein remarks, "but this is the track of an individual who exhibits sound business sense, adaptability, and transferable problem-solving and leadership skills -- skills that were needed elsewhere in the finance and administration division."

Here's another scenario. Suppose a large research university is in need of a finance officer who will manage post-awards for sponsored programs, coordinating effectively with various academic departments across the institution. Rather than only look within the sponsored programs unit, the institution also considers senior budgeting officers for the various colleges. Perhaps the senior budgeting officer for the college of arts and sciences has a proven track record of the type of coordination needed in this situation.

"You need versatile leaders," Goldstein concludes, "and your institution's senior leadership needs to create an environment that encourages and supports this type of horizontal career move as your institution requires more flexibility in the future."

Building Effective Horizontal Career Ladders

Kim Eberbach (Independence Blue Cross) and Tamara Freeman (University of Notre Dame) both represent organizations that have taken some of the initial steps in this direction, and they offer advice for institutions on what efforts can get you started. Independence Blue Cross, for example, is pursuing three concurrent efforts to maximize its ability to leverage leadership potential across functions within a given division:

  • Establishing cross-functional mentoring or a rotation program
  • Undertaking an ethnographic study to inform possible ladders and skill sets
  • Charting a "trajectory" of competencies to be developed along a career ladder, and then using that information to design tailored development paths for individual leaders

Here is more information on how these three efforts work.

Cross-Functional Mentoring

"For your leadership peer network to truly be effective, you need to get your emerging leaders informing each other about their roles, the work that they do, and how their work is interconnected. Your future leaders need to understand each other's roles and each other's worlds."
Kim Eberbach, Independence Blue Cross

The key to effective cross-functional mentoring (rather than merely cross-functional training) is to have colleagues from different departments engaged in long-term, problem-solving assignments together, collecting data, evaluating, and recommending solutions to real problems faced by the institution.

The University of Notre Dame has formalized cross-functional mentoring in the form of a rotation program. Participants in the program seek a more systemic view of their institution and the opportunity to develop and apply leadership skills in different contexts over the course of 18 months by taking three- or six-month assignments in other departments across the campus. Candidates are nominated by their vice president and are interviewed by human resources and by the institution's executive vice president; then, during the program, participants meet regularly with human resources and with the executive vice president to review progress and discuss career planning and possible assignments.

The criteria for rotation assignments are that they need to offer work of real value to the institution, and they need to be structured in such a way as to promote dialogue and collaborative problem-solving. Here are examples:

  • An audit or process improvement assignment -- working with a team in another department to provide an outside perspective in auditing and improving that department's communications and processes
  • An integration assignment -- such as embedding the developing leader within the budget office, to work alongside the budget office's staff and learn the budgeting process from A to Z
  • An immersion assignment -- experiencing all aspects of a particular department and perhaps directing a major project

An Ethnographic Study

In order to design effective, cross-functional career paths, Eberbach recommends taking an "ethnographic approach" -- an effort that Independence Blue Cross is currently embarking on.

"Interview 25-50 of your most successful leaders within the institution and learn what they did, map out the career path they followed, and the opportunities and challenges they faced along the way."
Kim Eberbach, Independence Blue Cross

Examine each stage on those individual career paths:

  • What were the stepping stones and the major decision points?
  • What leadership challenges did they face in those roles, and how did they overcome them?
  • Looking back, what do leaders wish they had known at that stage? What resources do they wish they'd had access to?

What you want to identify, Eberbach suggests, is what has worked well for your institution in the past: "It is always beneficial to leverage what has been successful within a given culture," he says. In other words, don't just rely on what the research says works at other institutions; find out what has been working -- and not working -- for you.

For example, use your ethnographic study to determine:

  • Optimum career paths for learning particular skill sets (What leadership skills are most effectively developed at a particular stage? Do some stages along the path require more or less time than others?)
  • What career trajectories have your most successful leaders taken? Are those trajectories still effective now?
  • What decision-making processes and problem-solving approaches have worked particularly well for developing leaders on particular paths?
  • Given the answers to the previous questions, how might a coach, mentor, or other support structure assist an individual in working a particular career ladder?

Note that an ethnographic study may not be as difficult to resource as it might appear; your institution likely has access to faculty researchers who would be excited to help design and conduct the project.

Chart Individual Trajectories

"If you were to lay out on a trajectory the competencies you want your future senior leaders to have," Eberbach suggests, "what is the natural progression of knowledge and skills they would need to develop?"

This type of work can inform a highly effective rotation or leadership development program, because it will inform you in charting horizontal career ladders that can be tailored to an individual leader's needs. Perhaps one director within your institution is already good at building collaborative teams, but requires greater financial acumen; perhaps another is excellent at encouraging collaboration but needs to develop a more systemic view of the institution. "Develop leaders not in a one-size-fits-all approach," Eberbach suggests, "but according to the competencies you need. Design a career ladder for the individual, to help them capitalize on their strengths and fill gaps."

To scale the effort up, build discussion of horizontal career ladders into the work of your peer leader cohorts; as a cohort takes ownership of its work and the development of its members, developing leaders can coach and mentor each other, assisting each other in spotting opportunities to fill gaps in their leadership skills. That is a sustainable approach to developing versatile leaders for your institution.