Three Ways to Help Employees Boost Their Careers

Last Updated Sep 20, 2010 12:51 PM EDT

The "lattice" career structure -- the strategic use of lateral moves to get ahead -- is typically cast in terms of professional positions -- consulting, accounting and similar categories to which the term "human capital" can be applied without irony.

I've written recently about Deloitte's latest expansion on its "mass career customization" strategy, which it has recast as the corporate lattice. But another organization, the Council for Adults & Experiential Learning (CAEL), pioneered the concept and the lattice terminology. What it has learned can be used by managers at most workplaces.

Back in 2003, CAEL, a Chicago-based nonprofit that develops industry-wide training and career programs, realized that thousands of health-care workers were stuck at the bottom of their organizations. Nurses' aides do the backbreaking routine work of hospitals and care centers. They mop. They deliver. They ferry patients to and fro. Few can afford to take time off to immerse in school, even with the aim of gaining certification such as LPN (licensed practical nurse) that would boost them to the next-highest rung in prestige and earnings. At the same time, hospitals and care centers were overlooking the potential ambition and abilities of aides, who, if trained, could fill needed spots as technologists and nurses.

CAEL connected the dots by creating a healthcare career lattice that consisted of short training modules that workers could easily master while working full time, coupled with career coaching so they could position themselves for a variety of more highly skilled, better-paying jobs. "To have a lattice, you have to know all the jobs you could branch out to," says Pamela Tate, CAEL president. CAEL got eight health-care systems to pilot the program. One of the hardest steps was getting them to agree to pay small raises as employees completed key steps in the training. Immediate rewards were key, because many of these workers were new to the concept of personal career planning. It worked: many of the aides advanced to nursing and technical positions.

Now CAEL is developing similar programs for the telecommunications industry and, soon, the green energy industry. Tate believes that a lattice point of view can help employers save money by more creatively deploying their current workforces. It also reorients many of today's workers who are whipsawed by upheavals in their industries and their careers. The lattice helps them see multiple opportunities, not just the next step in a linear career path -- i.e., the old ladder model. She thinks that the lattice is especially appealing to millennials and to boomers who want to reinvent their careers for a third act.

At the moment, little of this is obvious to employers or the working public, so CAEL has its work cut out for it. Few folks have breathing room to figure out how to get from Point A (where they are now) to point C (where they'd like to be in a couple years). Point B is where the lattice comes in, because a lateral move, additional training, or short-term project can equip an employee with skills to bridge to a new position, a new function, or both.

Tate recommends three ways that managers can foster a lattice mindset with their teams:

1. Reframe performance reviews as forward-looking, not just a post-mortem. Explain what new lines of business are emerging in the company and what new positions are coming into demand. That can help employees focus training and cross-functional experiences on steps that lead to those fast-growing categories.

2. Cast department and company decisions and performance in terms of the entire industry. That helps employees understand how suppliers and customers are interconnected -- and see the related career implications. Understanding the mirror-image jobs held by customers and suppliers delivers perspective on the skills that will bring growth to the industry -- and career opportunities for its workers.

3. Provide time and money for people to gain new skills training and education. Equip and encourage employees to transition into new fields, even offering three months of paid education leave. Linking this to the organization's growth goals will help you make the business case.

Image courtesy Flickr user CrazyOctopus.