Employee Growth Isn’t Just About Climbing the Ladder

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Do you think leaders should help their employees climb up the career ladder? What are some ways you can help your employees grow in their careers?

Employees want to develop and grow in their careers. But employee growth doesn’t necessarily need to be a rise up the rank.

Here is why employee growth isn’t always about rising through the ranks.

Changing Perspectives on Employee Growth

Many employees feel the need to move up the chain of command in order to be seen as successful. This form of employee growth has traditionally been associated with the concept of “climbing the ladder.”

However, employees who excel at one position often don’t have the talents to excel in a management or leadership role. For example, an accountant who excels at analyzing data and compiling reports may not have the talents to excel at managing a team of accountants. Though they have a talent for attention to detail and organization, if they don’t have the talents of communication or problem-solving, they won’t be a successful manager.

How do you keep people in roles they excel in and give them the feeling of accomplishment without promoting them into roles they don’t fit? You have to change people’s perspective on success, assure them that changing careers doesn’t make them a failure, and navigate people away from positions without destroying their morale.

Redefining Success

While promotion can be a great step under the right circumstances, it shouldn’t be your defining factor of employee growth. Employees should only be put into management or leadership positions because their talents lend themselves to those roles, not simply because you want to reward them for good work.

With this in mind, respect each position within your organization and develop ways that people can further their careers without changing roles. To do this, develop achievement levels, adjust your pay scale, and (if all else fails) get creative.

Tip #1: Develop Achievement Levels

Your goal as a manager is to place people into roles that match their talents. However, if their talents relate to “lower-level” positions, many people feel that their room to grow and achieve is limited. They actively seek promotions because they consider that an essential factor in career development.

To change this perspective, develop achievement levels for your employees. Achievement levels are essentially promotions that allow team members to continue to do the work they excel in while gaining respect, prestige, and bonuses. These levels keep team members motivated by showing a clear progression of success without overhauling their job description. This allows them to become experts in their position while still feeling like they’re succeeding.

For example, law firms use achievement levels to advance their lawyers into more responsibilities and prestige without changing the core of what they do. A lawyer starts with a firm by picking an area of expertise and beginning as a junior associate. If they excel, they rise through the ranks, from senior associate all the way to senior partner. Though their title changes, their work always revolves around the expertise for which they were hired. Because they focus on a specific area, they become an expert in their field, can handle more complex cases, and can take on more responsibility as they rise through the ranks.

Tip #2: Adjust Your Payscale

Often, employees want to be promoted into higher positions because the pay rate is significantly better. Even if they’re not equipped for the position, the promise of a higher salary is enough to push people towards the role. To be fair, some roles are inherently more valuable than others. For instance, a pilot is more valuable than a flight attendant in terms of actually providing the service of air travel. However, it’s often more valuable to have a great “lower-level” employee than a mediocre or poor “higher-level” employee. 

To encourage great employees to stay in the roles they do well, adjust your payscale if possible. Create pay ranges that offer higher pay for great “lower-level” employees and lower pay for new or poor “higher-level” employees. This works for two reasons:

  • A broad range encourages employees to develop their skills. Promising financial incentives that align with expertise leads employees to focus on their skills to make more money rather than focusing on trying to get promoted. 
  • An overlapping range between the higher end of a “lower-level” position and a lower end of a “higher-level” position forces employees to think before they take on a new role. This takes away the financial incentive for “promotion” and makes their desire to move a talent-based motivation instead of a fiscal one. If someone isn’t willing to take the temporary pay cut to move up, they’re likely not committed to the new role enough to excel.

For example, you manage a fine-dining restaurant. New servers are paid $20,000 per year, but expert servers are paid $75,000 per year. Also, while expert managers are paid $150,000 per year, new managers only make $30,000 per year. These numbers mean the following:

  • New servers and managers are encouraged to work to develop their skills in order to make more money in their positions. Rather than focusing on promotion, they focus on expertise.
  • Expert servers would have to initially take a $45,000 pay cut to move into a management position. An expert server who lacks the talents needed for management won’t try to move into the role because he doesn’t want to lose money.

Tip #3: Get Creative

Often, leadership won’t give you the freedom to develop achievement levels or adjust your pay scales. They stick to a traditional view of progression and don’t give value to lower-level employees. When working in a restrictive environment, what can you do to guide your employees into roles that fit?

When leadership forces you to stick to a particular model, get creative and find ways to provide your employees with a sense of progression and development without breaking the rules. This is the most challenging way to change perspectives on success because you have to actively work against a structure that doesn’t promote alternative paths to prestige and development. 

There is no one “right” way to get creative. Use your ingenuity to figure out ways to work within the confines of your organization’s structure. Ways to approach this include adjusting the responsibilities of roles, creating new roles, and giving gifts for achievement. 

For example, if your boss insists that you must put someone into a management-level position, play with the definition of that “management” position. Instead of forcing them to run a team, adjust the responsibility of the role into one of mentorship. This allows them to advance into the required role without forcing them into a position where they can’t use any of their talents. 

Self-Discovery Is the Key to a Healthy Career

As an employee, the driving force behind a healthy career is self-discovery. Discovering your talents allows you to select roles and positions that give you fulfillment and let you play to your strengths. If you’re in a position that you love, stay in that position. Though conventional wisdom insists that a varied résumé is important to success, it’s not worth leaving a position you excel in just to add a line to your résumé. 

However, if you feel as though your position doesn’t fulfill you or work with your talents, you’re not in the right position. Take the time to discover what drives you and find a role that matches your talents. This doesn’t just apply to new positions. Sometimes, your fit in a particular role changes over time. Whether it has to do with a promotion or a change in team makeup, take stock and be willing to adjust if you no longer fit in a role.

The Manager’s Role

As a manager, you will often meet employees starting new careers or climbing into new positions as part of their journey of professional self-discovery. To help them explore different roles and find where they fit, use the following methods:

Method #1: Give Feedback 

When employees step into new roles, give them feedback to guide their performance and give them a constant barometer of their proficiency. When you do, keep the following in mind:

  • Have regular performance reviews. This gives employees in new positions constant guideposts in their development and helps maintain your relationship with your team members.
  • Look to past performance to inform future growth. As an employee spends more time in a new position, they begin to develop a specific style of working and using their talents. In a feedback session, look to their past performance to develop strategies surrounding their specific style and talents.
  • Give feedback one-on-one. Your feedback should be individualized to each employee and delivered in a private setting. Public feedback sessions tend to lead to general feedback that doesn’t provide employees with the specifics needed to excel in their particular position.
Method #2: Get to Know Your Employees

While you don’t need to be best friends with the people who work for you, you need to understand their motivations and their talents. This connection allows you to make informed decisions and develop better solutions.

For example, Dan constantly shows up 15 minutes late to work. While it would be simple to assume that he’s lazy or lacks time-management skills, you decide to ask him what’s causing the delay. He explains that he has a young child and has to wait for his nanny to arrive every morning before he can leave for the office. With this information, you decide to move Dan’s workday to start 30 minutes later than the rest of the office and give him the option to work a longer day or do some work from home.

Method #3: Use Trial Periods

Traditionally, when someone moves up the corporate ladder, they lose the option to climb back down. If they discover that they hate their new position, they feel stuck because there’s a stigma of failure surrounding moving back into a position you were promoted from.

To overcome this obstacle, use trial periods when you bring someone into a new position. Be clear that you’re just trying them out in the role before you or they commit to the new job. This gives both parties the opportunity to determine if it’s the right fit before making the move permanent.

For example, you’ve just started a trial period with Tyler for a management position on your sales team. He was a fantastic sales rep, and he’s begged to be promoted for months. You move him into the position and tell him that you’re going to give him the next three months to feel out the role before making any final decisions. Throughout that time, Tyler discovers that he doesn’t enjoy running a team and wants to go back to his sales rep position. Because nothing was ever set in stone, you give Tyler his job back without creating a stigma of failure.

Navigating Someone Out of a “Wrong” Fit

Moving an employee out of a role isn’t an easy thing to do. Unless they’ve committed a crime or unethical act, it’s emotionally difficult to demote, transfer, or fire people. However, because they drag down the group as a whole, you need to quickly remove poor performers from roles they aren’t talented in. This requires tough love:

  • Tough: Determine your level of “unacceptable” performance and hold your team to that standard. If an employee consistently performs around or below average with no upward growth, they’re likely not going to achieve excellence in their position. 
  • Love: Caring about your employees doesn’t mean lying to them. Your job as a manager is to set your employees up for success. When you remove an employee from a role that they’re not well-suited for, you’re freeing them from the frustrations of putting energy into a position they won’t excel in. When you remove an employee, let them know that they do have talent. They just don’t have the right talents for this particular position.

In a lot of situations, you know your employees better than they know themselves. Though this may seem egotistical, it’s difficult to recognize your own talents and weaknesses when you’re the one doing the work. When you address an issue with an employee, they may grow defensive or angry because they don’t see their weaknesses. In these situations, stay calm and be consistent in your feedback.

Sometimes, employees know they’re struggling but don’t know how to get out of their positions. This may be because they fear a career change or unemployment. It could also be because their pride won’t let them quit. In these cases, employees may subconsciously put themselves into situations that actively expose their weaknesses. This is called “manager-assisted career suicide.” Whether they know it or not, they’re pushing you to fire them because they feel like they can’t just walk away. In these situations, help your employee by removing them. They may not realize it in the moment, but it’s the best option for them and for your team.

Employee Growth Isn’t Just About Climbing the Ladder

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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