Community Forum – Dual Career Ladders

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How do you establish dual career ladders?

I am looking at establishing dual career ladders within R&D.  The management ladder is well defined.  I am particularly interested in how the responsibility for managing people on the managerial ladder and managing technology on the technical ladder is made equivalent within the organization.  Any help that you can provide is greatly appreciated. – Kathleen O’Leary Havelka, Sr. Director, Global Research Development & Engineering, Diversey Inc.

Community Responses

Response 1

To summarize this long comment before you read it:  to have a viable dual career path in an R&D organization, you need:

1.  Preferably, a similar career structure in the business units of the company;  or if not, then a way for the R&D people’s status to be understood and acknowledged by their business unit peers.

2.  Job descriptions and rewards (including “perqs”) that are matched to the skill sets and personality profiles of the most productive types of people on the two different paths.

This comment comes from the perspective of Hughes Electronics (and Hughes Aircraft), an electronics and aerospace systems company, which at one time was the largest manufacturing employer in California.

Hughes had a well-established “triple career ladder” in its business units – line management, technical specialists and project/program management.  At Hughes Research Laboratories (HRL, the central corporate lab), as program management became a more and more important skill, we wanted to adapt the corporate system for the research lab.  This was easy to do, because the Human Resources systems were already set up with most of the required job titles and levels, we could add the few more that we needed, and we had the freedom to write the job descriptions to fit the lab environment.

Our goal was to allow a long-term career path in all three areas, and in particular to make the technical path sufficiently rewarding that our most brilliant scientists wouldn’t become less-brilliant managers, just to feel they were advancing.  The skills required of scientists and managers are somewhat different, and more importantly, what motivates and rewards them tends to be different.  So we wanted to define jobs, recognition and rewards so that true-blue scientists would feel they were on just the right path, and so would true-blue managers.

I don’t want to be too subtle, so let me be blunt:  some folks said, well, to make the career paths equivalent, you have to pay people exactly the same, and that won’t work because upper management will resist paying scientists that much, no matter how brilliant they are.  But the fact is, that point of view is a narrow management-oriented point of view.  Scientists, unlike some managers, care about money, but also about lots of other things.  Money is not the only measure in their minds.

So here’s what it boils down to:  scientists may not make exactly as much money as managers, but they participate in all the visible pay systems – such as incentive pay – as the managers.  Then in addition, scientists and managers each have their own “privileges of rank” designed to support the overall corporate mission.

For example, we would send people to technical conferences, help them publish in peer-reviewed journals, give awards of varying size for inventions and patents;  these systems, although open to all employees, were structured to primarily benefit the scientists.  We set up awards for team accomplishments and non-patentable improvements in business practices, and these were mainly of interest to people in the project management ladder.  And line managers were rewarded by their disproportionately large influence over hiring, firing and internal systems, as well as the potential (not always realized) of higher total compensation.

In addition, we created opportunities for people in all three ladders to have visibility to upper management.  Of course, by necessity, line and program managers tended to have more upper management exposure, not all of it welcomed!

Every system needs thoughtful and empathetic oversight.  If it becomes mechanical and automatic, some people – your less productive ones! – will game the system, and your really good people will get upset.  Moreover, every system will gripe one person or another who feels mistreated.  But if you can design the system so that it gives your most productive scientists a feeling that they are advancing and being rewarded, while still selling the fairness of the system to non-technical upper management, you have created a powerful tool for enterprise productivity and employee satisfaction.

I’d be happy to answer questions at

Additional comments submitted 7/13/2010:

I received e-mails posing further questions which helped me see that there are a lot of issues connected with establishing and managing a dual career ladder that have not been addressed in the answers.  Anyone who is setting out to do this needs to also consider such items as:

  1. What are the criteria for promotion on the technical ladder?  How do you make the criteria objective and reduce politicking (managers lobbying to promote their own people)?  In a multidivisional or multinational operation, how much do you allow different business units to adjust the criteria or their weights?
  2. How do you weight criteria such as outside technical recognition, mentoring, contributions to the business, etc?  To what extent do you use non-subjective “hard criteria” such as publications, externals awards, patents, dollar contributions to the business, etc?
    How do you decide how many people to promote to each level?  Management jobs are generally limited because they imply responsibility for a certain amount of sales or budget, or number of people;  but what restrains the technical ladder positions?
  3. Managers can be demoted if they do not perform well or if their position is eliminated.  Will people ever be demoted from technical positions if they no longer perform at a high level?  You would like to give them some “tenure”, but you don’t want nonperformers to degrade the reputation of the positions.
  4. How do you sell upper management on the benefits to the corporation of maintaining a separate technical ladder?  How do you get Human Resources cooperation in establishing job titles, descriptions and requirements?The Fellow position at some companies developed a reputation of not requiring any further contribution to the corporate enterprise.  For this reason, my own corporation avoided using the Fellow title, because we wanted all our technical ladder people to be continuing high contributors to the company.  To what extent is this perception present with upper management, and how do you address it?

– Art Chester, Retired Sr VP Research & Technology, Hughes Electronics, Retired President, Hughes Research Laboratories, IRI Emeritus Member

Response 2
At Kraft Foods we have had a dual ladder for more than 30 years. Senior level technical positions are ‘equilibrated’ to management ones based on the scope of the role and impact that the technical specialist has. The span of influence and contribution would be at the operating company /division level for someone equivalent to a section manager, and would grow to impact across all business units globally (with external influence; e.g. with regulatory agencies) at a level equivalent to a Senior Director.

Incumbents on our technical ladder must possess high level technical skills in an area of critical and enduring importance to the company, and must demonstrate technical leadership skills, including an ability to seek out new technologies / technology partners, work with business decision makers to quantify the benefits, influence investment in new technologies, and be able to work effectively with management, specialists in other disciplines, academics, consultants, etc.

Candidates for senior level technical positions are vetted by a panel of senior technical specialists and senior managers against published promotion criteria. Generally speaking, I believe we’ve been successful in providing a career path for those persons who have an interest and aptitude for science/engineering and an ability to exploit their abilities for the benefit of the company that goes far beyond ‘expert problem solving.’ These senior roles are proactive and require leadership skills that are similar to those found in good managers.  With our dual ladder we’ve been successful in retaining people with critical technical skills who do not wish to be people / organizational managers but nonetheless bring great value to our company.

– Evan J. Turek, Senior Kraft Foods Fellow, Strategic Research, Kraft Foods Inc.

Response 3
This is how we offer two career ladders and try to make it comparable:  PMI R&D Career Ladders

– Robert Stahl, Director HR Business Partner PMI Research & Development

Response 4
We have had a dual career ladder at P&G for the past 17 years—and believe it to be very successful. We would be happy to share information on this topic.

– Betsy Cusack, Associate Director, Human Resources, Research & Development

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