Fast-track management schemes were slashed in the early 1990s but are now making a comeback. High flyers are once again being seduced by the promise of speedy advancement. But how effective are these schemes?
'One of the problems is that people are still talking about "fast track" and "high flyers",' says Linda Holbeche of Roffey Park Management Consultants, who recently carried out a survey of 200 organisations on the subject.
'Delayering had taken place and employees were told to manage their own career and be prepared to move sideways. But then the organisation introduces something that appears elitist. The people who have been managing their careers feel as if they have been conned, spun a line.' The unchosen feel demotivated and the scheme becomes divisive.
'There is an absolute need to develop managers and that means a certain amount of fast track,' says Paul Harrison, HR director of Sun Europe.
'But it is difficult because you can only do this for a small part of the workforce.' Sun Europe's way round the problem is to play down the emphasis on high flyers and to focus on developing the skills and experience of perhaps 90% of its workforce, who are good performers. This involves performance planning and evaluation and trying to create a fit between what the company and what each employee wants to achieve. 'We don't call it fast track. If people are getting the development they need, we don't make a fuss,' he says. 'High flyers are important but to overprocess and programme too much is unrealistic.' It is an approach which seems to work.
Its staff turnover rate is about 60-70% that of the industry average, says Harrison.
It is difficult for organisations to identify who is really important.
Economic or other factors may dictate the need for different people at different times. 'Organisations should spread their eggs more thinly,' says Holbeche. She advocates taking a wider sweep and adds that specialists in areas such as IT, who are in demand, should be exposed to more general management issues. 'If you neglect key people with key skills, you may inadvertently drive them to leave.'
Even if they stay, resentment can be destructive,' says Richard Joyce, head of the centre for director development at the Institute of Directors.
'Existing staff resist the high flyers like mad'. With no one to help the high flyers in situations for which they may be unqualified or unprepared, they become disoriented. 'The most noticeable disadvantage to these schemes is that quite often the people selected do not match up to the expectations of their superiors and they are not well-regarded by their subordinates,' says Joyce.
Joyce is not adverse to 'fast track' programmes but he favours the soft pedal approach and 'looking to the organisation'. In this way, staff will be more motivated, he says, late developers will be identified and those that earn special treatment will be more likely to win the respect of their colleagues. It is the selection and appraisal procedures that worry Joyce. 'We have noticed that the criteria used for fast track people are the most variable. Many organisations have little means of judging objectively. Someone is recommended by a board director or manager, who may have a subjective view.' Joyce would prefer to see open and transparent systems run by outsiders.