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An Alternate Route Up the Ladder: Tips for Developing “Hi-Pros”

by David Sowinski on

A client recently asked for my thoughts on how to best develop and motivate “Hi-Pros” – the critical segment of individual contributors whose technical knowledge and expertise are essential to business success. This employee population is comprised of specialists and subject matter gurus – engineers, pharmacists, software coders, financial experts, etc.  They don’t manage teams, but their contributions are vital to the execution of business strategy and performance.

Often, these technical contributors have chosen this career path to leverage their strengths in ways that drive the highest value and are intrinsically rewarding, but because they aren’t ‘leaders’ in the traditional sense, they often aren’t afforded the same developmental resources and attention as their counterparts in the management ranks. An AMA Enterprise survey found, after surveying over 700 organizations, only 22% had formal development programs to meet the needs of their individual contributors.

In our own experience, many talent review processes show a bias towards those in management roles –  very few technical individual contributors fall into the “high potential” category – thus, technical experts aren’t provided the same developmental opportunities. Given their specialized knowledge, the resulting lack of satisfaction and commitment these contributors can experience puts the business at risk.

How Companies are Developing “Hi-Pros”

We were curious to learn more about what other companies are doing to develop this critical segment of employees, so we talked to several of our clients.  From these conversations, we’ve distilled the following recommendations for developing technical individual contributors:

  • Hold “career aspiration” discussions to determine what will motivate an individual contributor to stay at the organization and remain engaged
    • Explore what a technical career path could look like, even for individuals who do not desire a manager role
    • Identify and provide clear development opportunities (e.g., learning new technology)
  • Provide training and mentoring to early career professionals
  • Support on-going learning opportunities and skill development
    • Connect individuals with others who have similar expertise but in different industries
    • Fund efforts to gain job-relevant certifications, licenses, and other valuable credentials
    • Develop their skills at influencing across the organization via negotiation and presentations opportunities
    • Enhance their project management skills
    • Support their use of skills in non-work-related projects (e.g., Board membership in non-profits, NGOs, government-sponsored work)
  • Promote internal and external networking opportunities
    • Create an internal technical forum that meets periodically to share information on key projects, trends in the industry, etc.
    • Support and fund their involvement in professional associations and conferences
  • Offer highly competitive salaries
  • Allocate a percentage of their time to work on cross-discipline teams or special projects (e.g., innovation-focused teams)
  • Create technical lead positions with more executive-level interface (e.g., Special Advisor)

A Final Consideration

In thinking of ways to best motivate and develop technical contributors, there is a final point worth noting: one of the most frequent reasons talented people leave their jobs or exhibit low morale is “bad bosses.” Having a more structured approach to developing technical contributors is certainly a good start. However, it behooves organizations to ensure their managers are capable of having quality coaching conversations to complement and reinforce these developmental offerings.

 

The list of strategies we’ve presented here is certainly not exhaustive. That said – What is your organization doing to develop “Hi-Pro” technical contributors? What new developmental opportunities can your organization offer to better retain, engage, and motivate these key contributors?

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