Flexible career development aids lifetime learning

To successfully manage ever-changing technologies, not to mention their careers, engineers and other technical professionals must "have a clear picture of their company's performance and development expectations for them. They need to see themselves and their performance as others see them," says Jon Younger, managing director and ceo, Novations Group (New York, N.

By Lara Jackson December 1, 1998

To successfully manage ever-changing technologies, not to mention their careers, engineers and other technical professionals must “have a clear picture of their company’s performance and development expectations for them. They need to see themselves and their performance as others see them,” says Jon Younger, managing director and ceo, Novations Group (New York, N.Y.) consulting firm.

Technical professionals already have the usual association-based, academic, and Internet continuing education programs. Many companies also offer in-house courses to help staffers improve performance, but it’s also vital for engineers to view education as a lifelong project.

To become perpetual learners, engineers may have to replace the traditional “dual ladder” model that expects people to choose between management and technical sides. Mr. Younger says technical people should be able to move between both realms and advance without staying on one side forever. Research by Gene Dalton and Paul Thompson, former Harvard and Brigham Young University professors, respectively, stresses flexible career development.

Novations’ resulting Four Stages model (see chart) says supervisors, for example, can revitalize their technical depth by moving back to the technical side, instead of remaining in management. This flexibility can make staffers more effective and can also preserve the long-term attractiveness of technical careers.

Using Four Stages

Feedback, role-playing, and writing specific performance improvement plans can help technical career performance and development. Mr. Younger says initial training and requiring more specific competencies can provide a stronger basis for performance management and feedback. For example, Sandia National Laboratories and Monsanto created “multi-rater feedback” procedures that objectively assess performance. Monsanto says the process transforms supervisors’ from traditional judges into more helpful coaches, advisers, and guides. Feedback and training can also alleviate difficulties that often arise when employees move into management without mentoring skills.

Flexible development is also needed because, “There are simply fewer managerial roles available now,” says Mr. Younger. “You can also avoid the problem of using the technical ladder as a way to deal with managers who aren’t making it. Dual ladders create win/lose situations. Why do so when, realistically, people change in their interests, and evolve in their abilities?

“Almost two-thirds of Stage III and 25% of Stage IV staffers hold technical, not managerial, positions. Their companies see them as valuable and high performing, even though they don’t have managerial titles,” Mr. Younger says, citing Exxon, where chief scientists help direct new technology investments, and 3M, which gives senior, nonmanaging scientists budgeting responsibility for exploratory research.

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Author Information
Lara Jackson, editorial assistant, ljackson@cahners.com