Moving Up (Or Moving Out)

We’re all familiar with the typical single-elimination tournament bracket: 16 becomes eight, which becomes four and then two until only one remains standing--the champion. Now let’s turn the bracket 90 degrees counter-clockwise to produce the typical hierarchical organizational structure--a pyramid with 16 positions at the base (or front line), and one position at the peak (the boss).

The Roles Of Organizations

Some agencies pride themselves as being the “proving ground” for staff members that, by design, leave those agencies to lead others, but that strategy may backfire if new hires sign on with the pre-determined aim to bid you adieu after a few years. You become the training ground for competitors, who gladly allow you to spend resources developing their future professionals.

On the other hand, you would be less than honest, if not downright exploitive, if you promised leadership positions to all 16 front-liners knowing it was a promise you couldn’t keep. Providing clear career-path options, then, becomes crucial to developing excellent employees at all levels, and sometimes moving up means moving out (of the organization).

Defining Career Paths

Four general paths exist (Bernadin, 2007):

· Horizontal

· Vertical

· Internal

· External

(Note: see Figure 1)

Moving from job to job within a particular level or category is considered horizontal, while rising from the front line to top dog is moving vertically. For example, employees can rotate horizontally among front-line positions in aquatics, security desk and pro shop, or move vertically from direct service to supervision. Further, an employee can move either horizontally or vertically within an agency (internally, as in a recreation center), or among agencies (externally, as between a recreation center and a private health club).

A Cog In The Wheel

The precise path any given employee will be encouraged to follow varies according to an agency’s needs (including succession planning), external market forces, the employee’s evolving career aspirations and the employee’s “goodness of fit” with an agency. For example, moving horizontally and internally is more likely in a larger organization, simply because so many more options already exist; a small local park and recreation department may only employ three to five full-time staff, severely restricting mobility.

The same holds true for vertical, internal movement; a large agency has a greater number of upper-level positions, relative to a small agency. Horizontal, external movement is more amenable to agencies of all sizes, but requires a collaborative philosophy. You must be confident that what an employee will gain from an “externship” will be just as valuable as what you will teach the “intern” who has come to work with you. The vertical, external path fulfills the “move-up, move-out” condition, but must be managed to preserve an agency’s need for the best staff without misleading talented employees about their internal career potential.

With regard to market forces and “goodness of fit,” an employee may be one of those rising stars attractive to many other organizations and actively recruited in the same way Major League Baseball owners bid for productive free agents. In contrast, that same rising star may be a prima donna, whose oversized ego is not appreciated or tolerated in an agency, and you are more than happy to see that person leave.

Reaping The Benefits

Often, a combination of the four general paths produces mutually beneficial results, including a well-rounded, cross-trained staff that has been exposed to a wide range of internal and external experiences. The BASIC plan (see Figure 2) introduced in the April 2008 issue of PRB represents this combined approach. Essentially, two agencies with overlapping interests partner with each other to create an integrated pathway consisting of “horizontally vertical” stages that lead from the front line to mid-management.

So, although the employees may “move out” regularly, they always “move back,” while simultaneously “moving up” in increments, all within a specified amount of time. Everyone from the front line to the top dog stays on path and reaps the benefits.

Work cited:

Bernardin, J. H. Human resource management: An experiential approach. 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Irwin, 2007.

Kim S. Uhlik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hospitality, Recreation and Tourism Management at San Jose State University. He can be reached via e-mail at