Many companies have created a technical ladder career path that parallels their management ladder career path. The purpose of a technical ladder is to provide promotional opportunities for employees who bring great value to the company through their technical expertise and want to focus their careers on that expertise rather than build their careers through entering and rising through the management ranks. These companies have created a career path for these technical employees with titles and rewards that parallel manager, director, and vice president ranks using such titles as “consulting engineer” or “corporate marketing consultant” in lieu of management titles such as “engineering director” or “vice president of marketing.”
In the absence of a technical career ladder, many technically-gifted employees have been forced to move into management in order to attain more senior positions, and the rewards that go with those positions. The result for many has been that they find themselves unhappy in the management role and they yearn to return to their technical specialties, but are reluctant to give up the higher salaries and perks they have attained. When this happens, many have found that the company has lost a competitive technical edge and, at the same time, have some senior manager who are unhappy in their roles and end up leaving the company, voluntarily or involuntarily.
In most companies that use this approach, there are very specific criteria- a different set of competencies-that employees must meet to be promoted on the technical ladder. These criteria typically include the following:
• Contributions to company products or services
• Patents obtained
• Reputation (external to the company) in their field of expertise
• Presentations at industry conferences or technical papers for industry journals
• Mentoring of junior technical staff.
Typically, employees who want to be promoted on a technical ladder must prepare a portfolio that documents their achievements, and that portfolio is reviewed by a panel of senior company officers who pass judgment on each application. The people who run the technical ladder program often criticize the company’s management ladder for not using a similar set of criteria in deciding on promotions to management positions-the establishment of your company’s LDP, including the talent review process, will help counter these complaints.
While technical ladders were started primarily in technology companies, their scope is not limited to technological areas, such as engineering or manufacturing, but are also used in fields such as marketing, sales, and finance. A technical career ladder can help you to retain people with outstanding technical expertise and keep them in roles that add optimum value to the company.
If your company is planning a leadership development program, it is important to focus not just on those employees who will eventually become its business leaders, but also on those who aspire to technical leadership positions.