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Why career tracks matter more in the knowledge economy - a story.

Three people start as plant managers in a global company business. The manufacturing process is sophisticated and complex. Customers are international. The plant is part of a global supply chain.

Manager 1 comes from a competitor where they did a similar job. For them this is their first move out of the company where she built her career. The product type is similar. The plant size is similar. But the company is different in manufacturing scale, functional set up and global reach.

Manager 2 is the manufacturing quality lead from that plant. She started her career in quality. During the last 5 years she has had two jobs. 2 years working as a cross functional manufacturing cell leader. The last 3 years as head of quality reporting to the previous plant manager. She worked on two improvement projects on other sites. One of these was a new product launch. The other was supporting a manager deal with an under-performing line.

Manager 3 is a recent MBA on a fast track leadership programme. She has spent 2 years in the head office finance team looking after manufacturing reporting. Previous to her MBA, she was an officer in the Marines. During that time she commanded a combat unit and had a staff role supporting a senior leader in operational planning.

So what is the context they are likely to find when they start?

There are a very high number of policies, standards and systems they need to understand and apply. The business has added more and more over time, all with good intentions. They are there to improve quality, to apply best practice across sites, to give visibility to the exec team, strengthen data security, widen workforce diversity and more.

On top of this are all the regulatory needs around quality, labelling, record keeping and Health and Safety.

As the business has grown it has also globalised its functions. This means many of the functions that used to be managed by them on site are now globally provided services with minimal presence. They are internal service providers with their own policies and service level agreements. Part of this shift has been an increased move to self service functions. Where there used to be a helpful person, there is now a system.

Then there are the services that have been outsourced to 3rd parties. These are arms length relationships, at different stages in their commercial lifecycle. Some new, some coming to the end of their contracts.

The demands from head office for reporting and info are huge. Some of this is ongoing some of this is one off urgent requests.

There are the demands from their teams and all the “partners” for "face time". The direct number of reports looks manageable but underplays the reality of all the “partners” who make up the whole team.

Many of the procedures make sense in a narrow functional view. But they are contradictory when you apply them across the site. The different global functions have subtlety differing priorities. And they like to involve themselves in all major, and some minor, decisions.

There is a new global strategy with an increased focus on more new higher value products. These are harder to make and will have lower volumes.

On top of this there are personal agendas to understand and deal with. Some are about personal ambition. Some are about performance issues. And some are about old rivalries. There are old ideas which managers now feel it is a good opportunity to bring back to life

How would we expect the 3 managers to perform?

We would expect the experience of these 3 to be different. All can succeed but the likely risk factors are different

Manager 1

For manager 1, the external recruit, we can predict they will hit the following challenges

  • Nothing works like they expect. Things are similar but just different enough to continually confound expectations

  • The processes, systems and reports are different. She needs to relearn them

  • The products are different, and the manufacturing process are different

  • They do not know where the skeletons are hidden

  • They do not know the people well enough to understand their agendas and their history

  • They do not have the head office network to get a political scan of the environment

  • They do not know who to trust

  • They do not have the network to easily find out info about what to do

  • Out of all the priorities they don’t know which ones really matter and in which order

What makes all of these challenges so hard is that none of them are written down or easy to find out. If they are written down the shear volume of them means you can not read them all. And most of them require the manager to relearn what they already knew in their old firm.

This is the tacit knowledge which is only available internally within the organisation and, to a large extent, at the site itself.

The only route to this is experience or to borrow someone else’s experience and knowledge as needed. Not as easy if you are the most senior person on a site. Or to learn as fast as you can from experience. This is likely to include a lot of mistakes.

Manager 2

For Manager 2, the internal recruit, this is a big promotion in terms of seniority and a broadening of responsibility. Now they have managers from all functions, not just quality reporting to them.

The issues they are likely to hit are

  • Spending time on driving the business not solving other peoples’ problems

  • Reshaping existing relationships, moving from a peer to a boss

  • Letting go of their functional expertise and letting the new head of quality grow into the role

  • Making decisions about areas which are new to them and they don’t have deep understanding of

  • The focus on the business numbers is very different from before where the focus was on throughput and day to day activity measures. They are responsible for the outcomes not just for activity reporting now

This is both a shorter list and an easier one to solve. Most of this is a transition challenge that a good leadership coach can help with. It is not easy, but it is a well defined.

The decisions in new areas are solvable by reaching out to their network of experienced leaders on other sites. She has worked with them on her recent projects. She knows the head office experts to call upon.

Having been on site for 5 years she knows the people, the politics, the skeletons. She knows peoples’ reputations, strengths and weaknesses.

She has been working with the processes and procedures so knows most of them already. She knows which really matter and where to put her priority. She also knows which head office initiatives to put her weight behind.

Her time spent as cell leader means she is credible with the other cell leaders and understands their role. It also gave her a taste of working across functions.

Manager 3

Manager 3, the MBA from finance, with military experience on a fast track programme.

This would be a risky appointment. They have people management experience from a different context. They have general analytical and strategy knowledge from the MBA, but it is theoretical. They understand manufacturing related finance from head office and are likely to have a senior mentor.

Put this together and at a level they do tick all the boxes. And they are female which is great for gender diversity.

But they tick them at the wrong level. None of these have been demonstrated in a context of this complexity. And they are missing core manufacturing understanding which is essential to make decisions.

Our prediction is she would be overwhelmed. By the complexity of the manufacturing process, the lack of support, the challenges of being a manager of managers, not knowing the people who can help locally and a continued focus on doing what head office asks.

Her strategies that have worked before are unlikely to work with this degree of change. If it is a new country, this is even harder.

She is lacking technical expertise and organisational smarts.

She might succeed but the odds are stacked against her.

So which is the best option?

We start from the assumption that all 3 managers have similar underlying capabilities.

For us the obvious choice a company wants to be able to make is manager 2.

The external hire, Manager 1, and the fast track MBA, Manager 3, are unlikely to learn all the tacit knowledge that they need fast enough. They do not have the knowledge about the people, processes and systems that make the difference to making better decisions.

Over time they may get there, but it will take time and mistakes. And these mistakes might have big costs.

If Manager 2 is the obvious answer, what does it take to get to Manager 2?

It takes the active management of career tracks and of the critical learning experiences that match the role.

To start off this means you have to be clear which are your truly differentiated roles that drive performance. Every role matters, but some matter a lot more.

You then need to invest the time and effort to understand

  • What people in these roles need to know to be able to succeed?

  • What are the experiences that can provide this?

  • Where are these experiences?

And it takes time. This is a 5+ year journey for many roles. This means you need to be able to spot people with potential at the point where they have time to succeed and set them up for success. This means more time and money spent identify the junior and middle managers who you need to start off on their critical paths.

It takes treating critical development experiences as valuable assets which need to be managed as such. These are the pathway roles, like cell manager in this case, experiences, like the improvement project work on other sites and the time of senior mentors.

Because these are valuable, it needs to be managed by senior managers and needs to be a joint line, HR and Finance conversation. Why finance? Because they control the deployment of capital. We are saying this is another form of capital.

It means we recognise that for critical roles in complex organisations, the knowledge that matters is the tacit knowledge of how things and people really work . Not in theory, not a notional best practice but in reality. This only comes from experience.

And this takes strategic patience.

It means we acknowledge the truth that real deep expertise in complex fields is a 5 to 10 year journey. Competence may come a lot quicker, but is competence enough?


This case of a manufacturing manager may look like an extreme example but it is not. In our work across insurance, health, technology and engineering we find this kind of situation all the time. Critical roles where tacit internal knowledge is the key determinant of success.

In these roles, organisational smarts matter and need broadening moves within functions. Plus deep technical expertise also matters which takes time in a function. The result is these career tracks need to start early in peoples’ careers to give them time to succeed.

There is a second type of critical role where tacit technical knowledge is the key to success. Think senior software engineer, senior underwriter, research scientist of project engineer. In these cases, there are still vital experience sets that need to be built up over time, there are still career tracks. But they will be narrower within areas of expertise. They may well include organisational moves, to seek rare experiences.

There are then a lot of roles which are not critical and which require neither deep organisational smarts or deep technical expertise. They matter, but nowhere near as much and are not where the investment needs to go.

In a world where it is fashionable to say careers are dead we disagree that this is universally true.

Put basically, we believe that successful organisations need a sophisticated approach to career tracks to build the people who will make the difference.

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