Power of the family - foundations for career structures

Written by
Changeboard Team

24 Jan 2011

24 Jan 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Personal responsibility

One of the major themes of our times is ‘personal responsibility’. Increasingly so, responsibility for all types of action is being placed on the shoulders of the individual. This is true for personal development and careers as it is for making sufficient pension arrangements. While taking personal responsibility for one’s career is a healthy mindset, if an employer passes the total responsibility for careers and personal development over to the individual, there is often not much to stop that individual developing themselves elsewhere. Careers and career development are very much part of the employee engagement agenda and an organisation’s approach has a profound impact on the ‘psychological-contract’ that exists between the individual and that organisation. While many organisations have the best of intentions regarding the creation of coherent career frameworks, very often the tools and methods that they turn to have adverse and unintended consequences.

Pernicious effects of grading systems

Designing career structures can be difficult because often they are driven by grading systems.

Many organisations grade their employees’ jobs using some kind of ranking or rating system based on job evaluation. The assigned grades are intended to generate fair pay for people doing the same work and these grades are usually made known within the organisation.

While these systems are designed to compare different sorts of jobs and assign a grade that equates to a pay level or band they become ‘proxies’ for career structures. In practice, this has a terrible side effect.

Intended for one use these grading systems end-up adding to the costs of bureaucracy, frustrating employees and undermining leadership development.

Most companies that use job evaluation base their job grades on a points system. Points are allocated to a variety of weighted factors that often include size of budget and number of subordinates. Without proper controls there is an in-built incentive to empire build to obtain the necessary points to get to the next grade.

Job grading has an equally pernicious effect on leadership development. This is because bosses assign promotions based on grades rather than on contribution and set up the system so that they can continue to promote people who are at risk of leaving. By adding more steps to the management escalator they try to keep everyone moving up and end up designing the whole organization to make room for the people who have to be promoted.

Due to continual competitive pressure the number of organisations that have the luxury of creating extra rungs on the career ladder are now few. However, even in the ones that have created all these extra tiers, career management can be a nightmare and take up considerable management time and attention.

Work levels

The good news is that there is a management methodology that provides structure that does not bring along with it the typical management bureaucracy that job evaluation systems often entail.

Work levels is a management methodology used by some of the world’s leading organisations.

The essence of work levels is that all work can be allocated to one of a specified number of levels of work - each with its own theme, purpose and core contribution. Core contribution describes the outputs of the job and the value of these to the organisation is in direct proportion to the complexity of the environment in which decisions have to be made.

Based on the integrated framework, a direct 'mirror-image' connection is made between the outputs of work and the inputs - the personal capabilities, competencies and skills/knowledge/experience required to achieve these. At each successive level the capability to get one's head around the scale of the challenge needs to change profoundly.

Making this connection provides a dynamic link between people and jobs and this enables organisations to link career structures and the development agenda.

Broad bands

Job evaluation systems have a role in modern organisations. However, the use of the evaluated rankings and ratings needs to be limited to identifying fair compensation in comparison with other jobs. Any more than that, and there is job evaluation ‘mission-creep’.

For all other managerial and organisational purposes work levels can be used to create a system of clear accountabilities and broad-banded career structures where movement between levels represents genuine and significant promotion.

In July 2001, Tesco began replacing its management job grades with work levels. CEO Sir Terry Leahy was concerned that his managers spent too much time arguing over their job evaluation points. Leahy said to Brian Dive, the external consultant that implemented work levels in Tesco: “I want a system that is simple, clear and transparent which managers understand, trust and then forget about and get on and serve our customers.”

‘Although initially introduced to solve a compensation issue (fair pay for accountable work), work levels has subsequently been applied in Tesco to drive more effective organisation design, reduce cost-bases and help control costs in a time of great organic growth. They also now underpin the company’s leadership development programme with key differentiating competences identified at each level of work.’ (Dive 2008).

Job families

When there is a system that recognises when a job genuinely grows in size and scope (rather than simply increasing in score), it is possible to identify job families.

A job family can be defined as a group of jobs where the skills, knowledge and aptitude for the work are similar but develop progressively as the jobs increase in size and scope. Within each job family it is possible to clearly define benchmark jobs that can form the basis of a career ladder.

A job family breaks down the artificial barriers that organisation structures impose. As such, it is possible that a family encompass jobs that are in different functions, for instance, sales and marketing.

Job family identification requires a structured classification of the necessary skills/knowledge and experience. Without this, job clusters can be limited to very specific technologies or expertise and career silos easily form. Alternatively, if you are too vague as to what a job family is then people can become unsure as to how to move around in the organisation.


One of the major benefits of identifying career structures is that career success can be achieved by means other than gaining promotion to a higher grade. In broad-bands where there is a clear skills and knowledge classification there are greater opportunities for job enrichment and progression together with clear criteria as to what is required to move to another career ladder.

Well developed career structures that specificy job families provide the basis for:

  • A coherent and integrated training and development framework
  • A flexible workforce
  • Self-development

Dismantle over-engineered career structures

Under continued pressure on overhead costs, it's time to dismantle expensive and over-engineered career structures that do not deliver either engagement or efficiency.

Work levels can be used to develop a broad-banded career framework. When this is supplemented with a skills and knowledge classification it is possible to identify job families and develop an integrated training and development architecture. The end-result is that organisations minimise costs and, by ensuring that real adding value work is done at every level, job-holders are naturally more engaged and retained.