The New Look Fast Track

By Oliver, Judith | Management Today, March 1997 | Go to article overview

The New Look Fast Track

Oliver, Judith, Management Today

Predictable progression through one's career may be a thing of the past but the fast track is not.

Jobs for life, traditional career paths and hierarchical organisational structures may have fallen by the working wayside but the managerial fast track forges ahead nonetheless. While, in some ways, identifying, grooming and publicly recognising an elite managerial cadre destined for turbo-charged career advancement may seem strangely at odds with employers' current retreat from paternalism and promises, even some of the most short-termist organisations remain convinced that the schematised promotion of their most talented employees is an essential safeguard for the future. Such grooming of internal talent creates the virtuous circle of alleviating succession concerns within rungs of top and middle management while at the same time encouraging corporate whizz-kid loyalty to a company where they believe their future could fruitfully lie.

The danger, however, of overpromising while under-delivering has caused many employers to tailor their schemes to create more realistic expectations. London Business School's Professor Maury Peiperl, joint author of a 1995 special paper, High-flyers - Glorious Past, Gloomy Present, Any Future?, elaborates on the risk to companies which try to carry on with old models regardless. Historically, he says, the promise companies made to their crack troops was that they would rise up in the company to high-profile, high-responsibility positions. In return, employers invested far more in this elite cadre than in other employees. So, in the 1970s and 1980s, fast-track programmes flourished particularly in organisations such as oil companies or banks and other financial institutions with defined career ladders. 'But in the 1990s, careers have moved away from traditional, hierarchical paths to more horizontal ones,' suggests Peiperl. 'Re-engineering and de-layering have meant fewer steps in the ladder and fewer promotions.' After all, past promises became particularly empty when downsizing hit precisely the managerial positions which the creme de la creme believed it had been guaranteed.

The corporate response to changed circumstances basically seems to be that babies don't have to be thrown out with the bathwater. Current research, says Noeleen Doherty of the Human Resource Research Centre at Cranfield School of Management, indicates that most organisations believe a modified fast track can still serve a useful purpose. 'Companies are still anxious to attract and retain the best people and the fast track, whether a graduate or managerial programme, is still viewed as an essential component of succession planning,' she says.

Peter Kennedy, a consultant to ICL, agrees: organisations are still trying to tackle the issue of ensuring the right people are in place for the future and talent is kept within the company, but in a manner which reflects the changes in the business world. 'People may call the fast track by a different name, some may have taken steps to ensure the expectations they create are more realistic, and the majority now endorse the view that everyone in the organisation, not just the elite, should benefit from development opportunities. But the fast track is still here. Now, however, it forms part of a responsible contract between employer and employee. It is not a guarantee,' he says.

One factor behind the continued, though modified, existence of the fast track is the fact that the widespread talk of universal job insecurity and the death of the career has been hugely over-hyped, according to Andrew Mayo of Mayo Learning International Ltd. 'The rhetoric of no jobs for life is wholly out of perspective,' he says. 'To leap from saying that there is no career security to suggesting that there are no more careers is absolute nonsense. People do still pursue a career within one company, people do still get promoted and companies are more anxious than ever to identify and develop good managers. …

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