Predictable progression through one's career may be a thing of the past but the fast track is not.
Jobs for life, traditional career paths and hierarchical organisational structures may have fallen by the working wayside but the managerial fast track forges ahead nonetheless. While, in some ways, identifying, grooming and publicly recognising an elite managerial cadre destined for turbo-charged career advancement may seem strangely at odds with employers' current retreat from paternalism and promises, even some of the most short-termist organisations remain convinced that the schematised promotion of their most talented employees is an essential safeguard for the future.
Such grooming of internal talent creates the virtuous circle of alleviating succession concerns within rungs of top and middle management while at the same time encouraging corporate whizz-kid loyalty to a company where they believe their future could fruitfully lie.
The danger, however, of overpromising while under-delivering has caused many employers to tailor their schemes to create more realistic expectations.
London Business School's Professor Maury Peiperl, joint author of a 1995 special paper, High-flyers - Glorious Past, Gloomy Present, Any Future?, elaborates on the risk to companies which try to carry on with old models regardless. Historically, he says, the promise companies made to their crack troops was that they would rise up in the company to high-profile, high-responsibility positions. In return, employers invested far more in this elite cadre than in other employees. So, in the 1970s and 1980s, fast-track programmes flourished particularly in organisations such as oil companies or banks and other financial institutions with defined career ladders. 'But in the 1990s, careers have moved away from traditional, hierarchical paths to more horizontal ones,' suggests Peiperl.
'Re-engineering and de-layering have meant fewer steps in the ladder and fewer promotions.' After all, past promises became particularly empty when downsizing hit precisely the managerial positions which the creme de la creme believed it had been guaranteed.
The corporate response to changed circumstances basically seems to be that babies don't have to be thrown out with the bathwater. Current research, says Noeleen Doherty of the Human Resource Research Centre at Cranfield School of Management, indicates that most organisations believe a modified fast track can still serve a useful purpose. 'Companies are still anxious to attract and retain the best people and the fast track, whether a graduate or managerial programme, is still viewed as an essential component of succession planning,' she says.
Peter Kennedy, a consultant to ICL, agrees: organisations are still trying to tackle the issue of ensuring the right people are in place for the future and talent is kept within the company, but in a manner which reflects the changes in the business world.
'People may call the fast track by a different name, some may have taken steps to ensure the expectations they create are more realistic, and the majority now endorse the view that everyone in the organisation, not just the elite, should benefit from development opportunities. But the fast track is still here. Now, however, it forms part of a responsible contract between employer and employee. It is not a guarantee,' he says.
One factor behind the continued, though modified, existence of the fast track is the fact that the wide-spread talk of universal job insecurity and the death of the career has been hugely over-hyped, according to Andrew Mayo of Mayo Learning International Ltd. 'The rhetoric of no jobs for life is wholly out of perspective,' he says. 'To leap from saying that there is no career security to suggesting that there are no more careers is absolute nonsense. People do still pursue a career within one company, people do still get promoted and companies are more anxious than ever to identify and develop good managers.'
At ICI, for example, a fast-track programme has always played a vital part in the succession planning process but, says Geoff Tudhope, ICI group human resources development director, the emphasis is currently changing. 'The concept of a fast track or of identifying people of the highest potential and then moving them through the organisation is, we believe, fundamental to our success.
In the past, however, we sought to give our high-flyers as much functional and geographical experience as possible. As a result, they tended to become like spinning tops, moving rapidly between appointments throughout the world. While they gained great experience in a short time, one may question whether it was good for the customer base, for the style of an organisation when its leaders chopped and changed, or for the individual who gained a scattering of knowledge but never stayed in position long enough to deal with the consequences of his or her decisions.'
So while the company has acted to limit individuals' expectations, it has also become somewhat more demanding in terms of the immediate benefits expected of high-flyers. ICI's spinning tops, says Tudhope, have now been replaced by what he terms 'shooting rockets'. 'We are now looking for a way of providing bigger managerial jumps but with longer dwell times. Instead of what was basically a system of job rotation through two-year stints, we are now looking to give high-flyers positions lasting four or five years which provide enough challenge to keep them stretched and also allow them to learn from their mistakes. It's not just about having had the experience - managers must now show that they are capable of delivering results.'
Of ICI's 65,000 employees worldwide, Tudhope reckons that some 500 are currently earmarked on the fast track to the top. 'We view the fast track and the truly challenging opportunities it provides as vital in attracting and retaining those of the highest potential. We are looking for leadership talent at all levels throughout the company but also clearly at the top end. The fast track is one way to ensure that, while we will continue to recruit externally to broaden our capabilities, we have enough home-grown talent to fill board-level positions from within the company.' (It may be an indication of previous failure in this respect that ICI has recently looked to fill around 25% of its top positions by bringing in people whose experience has been acquired outside of the organisation.)
Spotting high-flyers at ICI is a line manager-led activity and not one driven by the human resources department. Line managers dip, says Tudhope, into ICI organisations worldwide to try to identify, at the earliest possible stage, those with the potential to reach the top. Managers assess would-be fast trackers according to a competency-based framework and then meet with other line managers to discuss their selections. 'Being challenged by their peers is a critical part of the process because it raises standards by exposing your judgments to that of others,' says Tudhope. Individual line managers then decide whether or not to indicate to selected high-flyers their new status. 'Some managers are concerned that they may overly raise expectations. But we are trying to get away from the idea that people succeed simply by progressing from job to job. Now you need to deliver successful performance to get to the top.'
Once selected, ICI high-flyers are exposed to a series of new functional and geographical experiences which are designed, says Tudhope, to provide 'the right steps with the appropriate dwell time'.
While ICI is accelerating its fast-track activities to meet its growing requirement for diverse leadership, the organisation is simultaneously working much harder to develop the skills base of non-fast track employees. 'In the past, we were led by the 80:20 rule and focused too much attention on the high-flyers and left everyone else to get on with it. But if we can ignite the 80% then we will have a truly wonderful organisation,' he eulogises.
At Granada Forte, meanwhile, Stephanie Monk, group human resources director, explains that the company places sufficient faith in fast-track schemes to be piloting one currently, although the number of participants is at present extremely limited. The scheme is aimed at new entrants to the company who have some previous work experience.
'We hope that they'll be managerial feed corn,' says Monk. 'The programme will be bringing in bright and flexible people. They'll supplement others who will also be candidates for promotion, having come up through different channels. The scheme is not intended to create an elite - rather it's intended to bring in different people and add a bit of diversity and originality to the mix ... It was a case of recognising there was an entry opportunity that we weren't exploiting.
'It's vital,' she continues, 'that both employer and employee make a contract in an honest way. We are making no ultimate promises but are offering a unique opportunity for learning and experience. We will deliver our skills and experience to the candidates. We ask them to keep their feet on the ground in jobs which will provide ample opportunity to develop their managerial skills.'
Slightly further down the line, systems and services business ICL aims to identify existing employees with high potential in a early in their careers. The company's Millennium Project puts 20 managers each year (average age early to mid-30s) through a 12-month development programme.
In partnership with Ashridge Management College, ICL's fast trackers undertake an intensive programme of personal development, project implementation and group work on the back of a four-day assessment process which includes role play, presentations and interviews with ICL directors. Kennedy stresses that, following participation on the programme, no rapid rise to the top is guaranteed. Like his ICI and Granada Forte counterparts, he claims that every effort is made to ensure non-fast trackers do not feel like underachieving also-rans.
This is not a question of charity or simple high-mindedness: anyone whose nose has ever been put out of joint by the admiration for a newly recruited MBA, for example, can testify to the demotivation feeling like a second-class citizen can cause. Although a company fast track clearly does not create the same bitterness that an outsider is being so highly valued precisely because their expertise has been gained outside of the organisation, it can still leave a similarly bitter taste in the mouths of those who feel their talents should not be being overlooked in this way. Those who have worked as managers in France, where the grandes ecoles system - which institutionalises the idea of a fast track for the nation - flourishes in business as well as in the world of political administration, confess to at least initial resentment at the situation.
This often either hardens into a physical exit from the company or softens into resignation of another kind - not all that great a reaction for the team-playing, all-empowered, everyone-has-something-to-contribute corporation. The concept of stretching employees to produce a creative, dynamic environment tends to fall down somewhat when competent managers become convinced that they are in something of a dead end.
While the corporate world seems to have taken the nose-out-of-joint problem on board, the same cannot be said for the public sector, however. Cynics might suggest that for all the claimed revolution in this part of the economy, hierarchies here are almost as pronounced as ever, and career paths just about as predictable. The British Police Force, for one, still places considerable faith in a fast-track system which has been in operation for over three decades. Every year between 30 and 40 high-flying UK police officers join the Accelerated Promotion Scheme (APS) organised by Bramshill Police Staff College. Entry to the course is either through the police force graduate entry scheme or through an in-service selection process.
A rigorous selection procedure for both graduates and non-graduates includes a three-day extended interview process. Successful applicants may take up to four years to complete this sandwich course. After completing the courses, first for sergeants, then for inspectors, candidates return to Bramshill for two further annual one-week courses to monitor their development.
The APS course consists of a two-tier training based, firstly, on personal competencies designed around individual effectiveness, including communication skills, problem-solving and decision-making skills and sensitivity to the operating environment. However, the focus changes during the second part of the course to organisational issues including managing change and organisational culture. Officers also spend a week working in a non-police organisation such as in a banking or retailing outfit.
Course manager Christina Montague emphasises the scheme's acknowledged success over the past 30 years in identifying star performers and grooming people for the top of the organisation. 'First, at one or two a year, the drop-out rate from the course is very low. Second, the retention rate within the police force of former course members is extremely high. Some 94% of former course members are still working or have retired following 30 years' service. 29% of those officers who attended the course between 1962 and 1972 reached chief officer ranks, the highest in the organisation.'
The rationale behind the scheme, she says, is very simple. 'Most other organisations have at least two or three points of entry,' she explains. 'In the police force, everyone starts as a constable, and there is no direct entry higher up the scale. The aim of APS is to attract and retain high-calibre people who want to join the police later in their careers and to provide broader managerial and supervisory training and experience for those who have worked solely within the force.'
Similarly in the civil service, there are eight or nine fast streams (in the diplomatic service, for example, or for GCHQ high-flyers) and the title of John Fuller - Head of Fast Stream and European Staffing Division in the Cabinet Office - reflects the importance attached to the system. Altogether about 250 recruits are admitted to the fast track every year, the largest number of whom go into the home civil service.
Fuller explains the system. 'All (streams) offer rapid promotion to Grade 7, our key middle management grade, within three to five years. But the system doesn't guarantee promotion; there's no conveyor belt. What it does offer, though, is the postings that show what you can do. Recruits have to fight their way up to middle management, however.' And after that, he claims, they are entirely on their own (although about half the senior posts in the civil service are currently held by those formally selected for stardom early on in their careers).
The civil service has, he says, maintained the scheme out of a belief in its intrinsic merit rather than out of any ignorance of the changes that have taken place elsewhere. 'We take over 3,000 graduates a year so the fast stream is not our main graduate entry point.
But we require it to compete in the top end of the graduate market.
We did review the logic behind it in 1994, and the report concluded that there was still a need. If nobody had fast-track entry, then perhaps nobody would need one, but as long as (other) employers are making these offers, we need one that is competitive.' Given the difficulties the public sector is widely believed to experience in recruiting high-calibre applicants, he may have a point.