Imagine this all too common scenario. You are the HR head of a large corporation which has been very successful in its time but is now in great need of renewal and transformation. The change demands new businesses to be created from scratch and entire functions to be modernized and greatly strengthened. For several reasons, including the immediate infeasibility of lifting compensation structures to levels high enough to attract talent, lateral intake has to be limited. Over the years you have been recruiting some excellent people from campuses but they’re way down in the hierarchy. You don’t have time for them to crawl up the plaque-blocked promotion channels and, in any case, most of them get frustrated by their slow progression and leave before they have a chance to make a significant difference.
The challenges listed here are the right triggers for a Fast Track Program (FTP) provided you are a passionate believer in the 'stretch' theory of development.1 Of course, an FTP is not a panacea for all organizations in all situations. Let us examine where it is likely to make the greatest contribution to the firm’s strategic and operational goals.
Why have career path Autobahns
The first predisposing factor demanding an FTP is company size. Smaller organizations may also find an FTP useful but it is virtually mandatory for large corporations that have been around for a while. Regardless of how dynamic an organization is in its origins, scale and time bring hierarchies, bureaucracies and set ways in which things-have-to-be-done in their wake. The problem is exacerbated when the business or technical environment suddenly demands a different set of strategic competencies and, given the company’s past priorities, talent (both in numbers and quality) is far from the limbs which current and future strategic imperatives demand should be strongest. Of course, diversification or rapid growth in adjacencies makes leader paucity into an existentially threatening drought.
The pat (and frequently disastrous) answer is to get outside talent both to shake up the existing orthodoxy and remedy the inter-functional or inter-business lopsidedness of internal talent distribution. Few companies are in a position to rejig their entire compensation structure just to maintain parity with a large inflow of lateral hires. In this situation, paying top Rupee for outsiders can cause additional acceptance problems for people who are likely to be resisted anyway for the change they are supposed to effect. Getting what is affordable leaves the company with the worst of both worlds – having to absorb outsider shock for no perceptible talent quality gain. Another great challenge with a large lateral influx (whether for growth or rejuvenation) is the cultural confusion it brings in its wake. This is not to deny the utility of selective and appropriate external admixture when culture needs modification but, thoughtlessly stirring people from potentially incompatible organizational cultures in the pot, is a recipe for organizational indigestion or worse.
Speaking of culture, an FTP is itself an invaluable tool for cultural change. Since the people selected exemplify the desirable new cultural markers, they can become proselytization pivots wherever they are placed. Equally importantly, the scheme itself is a perfect catalyst for organizations that have been stuck in bureaucratic limbo while moving from traditional, seniority-bound people practices to nimble, meritocratic avatars. A robust FTP smashes age and tenure specifications that pass for HR policies in some companies.
For organizations that are dependent on people commitment and creativity, it is vital to retain their best contributors and potential leaders. An FTP can significantly improve the probability of holding on to the few who are disproportionately capable and promising. Further, if the challenges facing the organization require leaders with creative fluency, mental flexibility and high energy levels, an FTP can be an especially appropriate vehicle for carrying people with precisely these capabilities to the actual scene of action. When the most dynamic innovators are left in organizational backwaters or jobs that do not stretch them to the full, not only will the company fail to benefit from their capabilities but will, very likely, lose them. The FTP is thus a valuable component of the employer value proposition, particularly for millennials entering the workforce who may otherwise go to start-ups. Being in an FTP combines the excitement and challenges of a start-up with the scale, stability and learning potential that only larger firms can provide.
The race isn't always to the swift... but that's the way to bet
There are as many versions of FTPs as there are modern corporations that have found this an optimal answer to their people planning problems. Distinct from the internally sourced FTPs we have been considering is the Fast Track Program Variant (FTPV) which throws open (or even limits) the initial intake to external talent (usually fresh out of college). The FTPV is particularly useful for large conglomerates which find it a challenge to disseminate a common culture across sectors as well as geographies. A cadre of super-capable culture-carriers (with continuing ties and commitment to the conglomerate center) can play this role with suitable central support.
While all the pointers given in this section and the next may not apply to every FTP, it is unlikely that too many of them can be controverted without jeopardizing the basic objectives of such programs. Let’s briefly look at some of these relatively invariant principles for designing and deploying a successful FTP.
Assuming there is a sufficiently bright, eager and diverse pool to choose from (and if there isn’t, you can stop your hopes of creating an FTP right there), the obvious place to start is selection. This is where all our psychometric proficiencies will be tested to the full. After all, we are trying to identify Fast Trackers (FTers) with the potential to be CEOs many years later while having the maturity and usable competencies to make an immediate splash. Apart from the creativity, flexibility, and energy to which we have already referred, we need to evaluate the hunger to keep learning and the ability to inspire and influence people who cannot be ordered (either because they are decades older or not in the reporting hierarchy). Making the process even more complex is the imperative to involve the top leadership of the company during the final selection. Unless they participate in the program and are seen to be committed to it, the FTP will be shot down much before it can prove its worth. Even after an FTP is successful, a single wrongly selected cohort can disproportionately damage its equity. Hence the need never to relax the selection quality check. Extreme selectivity need not cause disaffection among those who don’t make it as long as the process is run fairly and the organization at large can see the remarkable caliber of the people who are chosen. In fact, the greatest testimonial the selection process can receive (and I have been fortunate to hear it on more than one occasion) is for people who have not been selected telling you they appreciate why others were picked up and realize what they need to do to improve themselves.
Now for the hard work
Provided the pool of talent from which the choice has been made is educationally diverse (as it should be) there will need to be supplemental education to fill the gap for some FTers. I am not a great believer in the efficacy of very brief training inputs 2 and find programs of substantive duration, delivered by top-class educational institutes, an invaluable ingredient. Since management education is the most likely gap for FTers, the identification of the most suitable executive MBA course is a 'must-have' for most FTPs. Of course, such education is only enough to bring everyone to the same starting point. Even more important are the tailor-made courses for each cohort depending on the challenges the organization faces and the cultural continuity or change FTers are meant to contribute. Each major corporate transition or renewal is prefaced by orientation sessions for the top management and longer training for key change agents. The most recent FTP batches must get places at the more intensive training and previous FTers should be trained with the top management. There is a limit to which culture can be transmitted in a classroom. FTers must be the first choice for multi-disciplinary task forces – particularly those dedicated to major transformational initiatives. Those who wish to leave a mark on a corporation’s history can do no better than learn from those who have made history in the past and from closely observing those who are in the process of creating it. Hence mentoring by previous leaders, access to current leaders and the opportunity to work with the latter is an important part of the education of these future leaders.
At the heart of any FTP is the challenge, variety and learning contained in the assignments and projects that form the bulk of the post-selection training. Each of these has to be meticulously chosen but it is their summation that must mosaic representative samplings of the organization’s key functions and geographies (other than the ones the FTer originated from). For instance, it would be impossible to cover all of a large company’s functions in stints of 3-4 months (which are the general norm) even if the training extended for well over a year. But it would be very practical to ensure immersion in a customer-facing function, an operations or delivery one and a couple of functions focused on support, service and monitoring. As important as the choice of assignment is the choice of guide or supervisor for each of them. Very obviously these have to be capable coaches who have a demonstrated record of nurturing leaders. They must be secure enough not to feel threatened by the FTers assigned to them but must also have the firmness to start rubbing out the rough edges that are the concomitant of young enthusiasm. In addition, HR needs to provide individualized coaching to FTers as they cope with a totally different magnitude of responsibility and facilitate formal mentoring as well as informal networking with previous FTer batches. Make no mistake. FTers are a resource requiring high maintenance.
The initial placement requires even more care (than the training stints) in the choice of both assignment and supervisor. Very often an executive assistant role to a business leader is an excellent introduction and signal of support for an FTer starting several levels higher than similarly qualified employees. The extent and rapidity of the level jump varies from company to company but, if it doesn’t burn a few envious hearts, we are really not talking of an FTP. On the other hand, if the caliber the FTP yields is not obvious to the general employee population (at least in their non-Iago moments) either the selection is flawed or some of the organizational pre-requisites don’t hold and it is time to review whether the organization should step back from having an FTP at all.
The role of mentors and HR support doesn’t become less critical in the first few years after initial placement. In particular, if an above-average trajectory is to be continued, both the top management and the HR leadership will have to put their weight behind the best achievers among the FTers. If such advocacy is not energetically pursued, jealous seniors (slogan: "I never got such a boost when I was young") and the inertia of the system will ensure a reversion to the mean.
Shooting down Icarus
It should be clear by now that the FTP is a highly complex and fairly delicate ecosystem. The lack of almost any of the prerequisites and action steps already mentioned can cause the scheme to malfunction. The most frequent causes of FTP fatality, however, are just three. They are interconnected but worth examining individually.
Once an FTP is successful, the greatest temptation is to pump more people through the program. But in this case, diminishing returns set in very quickly. All else being the same, higher intake means some lowering of quality. Once this decline becomes perceptible, the aura justifying the higher placement and progression fades away and the scheme becomes a source of demoralization rather than inspiration for employees at large. It is not enough to ensure just that there are enough entry level roles for FTers. A good manpower planner must also limit FTP intake to the number of CEO / CXO roles that will be available to this source in the future.
Before an FTP finds its feet or when there is a leadership change, the loss of support and commitment for the program from the CEO or CHRO is another grave danger. Since the FTP Icarus always has to struggle against the gravitational pulls of mediocrity and inertia, it falls back to earth as soon as top-level boosters are removed. Closely linked to both these threats is the decline in the quality of learning and placement assignments. These are inevitably followed by a slowing career progression vector which is no longer being pushed by HR.
These three acts conclude, of course, with FTers following the stage directions for Antigonus. 3 When these 'schemicidal' steps are taken by newly arrived CEOs or CHROs, they take these departures as confirmations of their good sense in distrusting and debilitating the program. The truth is just the opposite. FTers are like canaries in mines. Their quality, confidence and the FTP stamp make them the first choice of talent hunters everywhere and their departures should be an early warning that things are not well with the organization. In my experience, when an FTP fails, the company falters badly not too much later.
Substantial gains accrue to organizations that correctly tailor-make their FTPs and sustain them over the years. The obvious and immediate advantage comes from the extraordinary results these outstanding performers deliver. Moreover, they are an ever-ready and versatile team of leaders that can be air-dropped whenever there is a crisis to be handled or opportunity to be exploited. Over the long term, it is even more valuable to have a pipeline of enculturated leaders available for future CEO and CXO openings. The benefits of an FTP that are not so obvious are those it provides to the employee population at large. An FTP gives a clear signal of what the company really values. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an accelerated promotion is worth a million. It inspires people to follow the FTers examples because, even if they can’t make it to the program, mirroring these behaviors will make their own careers faster than otherwise. Moreover, a successful FTP makes it immeasurably easier to 'unstodge' sclerotic systems and bureaucratic blocks to the free and fast upward movement of the meritorious throughout the organization. And that, after all, is what makes for a nimble and high performing organization.
- Visty Banaji, Stretch them: A simple philosophy of development, People Matters, 19th February 2018.
- Visty Banaji, Draining the (Training) Swamp, People Matters, 24th August, 2020.
- William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale, Act III, Scene 3.