Why a vertical career should not be the only career path

Artem Gurnov
5 min readMar 21


Having a clear career path is one of the critical factors that affect employee retention. Team members need to have a clear picture of what they need to do and achieve to progress in their careers. Lack of clarity on this front creates a risk of them looking at other companies that do provide career opportunities. Unfortunately these days a large number of companies promote vertical growth as the only meaningful career path. And while this may work for certain employees who were aspiring to eventually move to the leadership role anyway, for others this may be something that they’re not very motivated to do. However many would still choose to make that move since they want to move to the next step. Today we’ll discuss which risks the vertical-only career path creates for organizations and what other options need to be present for the employees.

Let’s begin with highlighting the reasons why vertical growth is perceived as the main career path by many.

It’s a common practice in the market

Moving to a leadership role is something that is widely translated as a successful path in the market. Posts on this are published on LinkedIn and other professional communities on a daily basis. Even during the interview process, people often hear something like “if you perform well, then within a year it’s realistic for you to become a team lead or even a manager”. This pressure translated from many directions creates a certain level of expectations regarding the career path even when the person didn’t initially consider management as something she would prefer to do as a next step.

Higher compensation

The compensation plan in many companies also plays a significant role in translating the opinion that leadership equals success. It is simply more profitable for an employee to move to the management position versus staying as an individual contributor (IC). There’s a common phrase “compensation drives behavior”. So higher compensation makes it more compelling to look at a vertical career path.

Easy to track career progression

The times when the majority of people stayed in the same company for decades are long gone. Today it’s common to switch jobs every 2–3 years and some even do that every year. When one’s entering the job market she wants her CV to stand out among others. Not all recruiters would consider a move from a specialist to a senior specialist within 2 years as great as the move to the management role. As a result, transitioning to management can be also called a long-term advantage for the career in general — not within a single company.

It’s a common indicator that one’s being appreciated

Another point heavily related to the job market perception of the person’s results is that oftentimes the move to the leadership role is considered the main indicator of the recognition of the results of the employee. The person assumingly performed so well that the decision has been made to move him to the management position so he could scale his amazing results.

Now let’s discuss why not every great IC would be a good fit for the leadership role. Firstly, leadership is a completely different role. It requires different skill sets, knowledge, attitude, motivation, and more. Basically, it’s a completely different profession. One may be an amazing subject matter expert in her area of expertise but it doesn’t guarantee that she would do good at leading the people working in that area, getting them to successful results, motivating and supporting them. It’s not hard to find examples online when top performers were moved to leadership roles and failed miserably at them even though they were trying really hard. One of the key reasons for that is that leadership is all about working with people. Not everyone has the aspiration to do that and also not everyone is prepared to face what it entails.

That said, it is probably not the best idea to promote the person to a leadership role based solely on the results the employee delivered as an individual contributor. When such promotion is a well-weighted decision and many factors are taken into account — such as one’s potential to be a leader, leadership skills demonstrated already on the IC level, motivation, and many more — this may actually be a great idea and would be good for the business. But when the move to the leadership is translated as a reward for individual performance, the team (and sometimes the whole company) may face problems in the long term — the decrease in results, employee attrition, lack of motivation of the team, and more.

Now, what exactly can be done to tackle this challenge and move away from having the leadership path as a single career option? The answer is simple (but, of course, not easy) — build a meaningful career path for ICs.

Many individual contributors will be happy to increase the level of seniority in their roles. You can have multiple levels for each role. Each level needs to be clearly described:

  • What responsibilities are associated with working on this level
  • What knowledge domains do people need to have to be on this level
  • What skills do the employees need to have to be on that level (both hard and soft)
  • What experience do the employees need to be on that level (including the number of years of experience, if applicable)

It could be helpful if you prepare a description for each level as if you were preparing a job description to hire external candidates (you may eventually do exactly that as the team is going to be growing). Once you prepare the descriptions of all levels you can put them all into a single chart that would basically become a skills/knowledge matrix. Among other things, this matrix would contain a clear answer to the question “what do I need to do/know/achieve to move to the next stage in my career as an IC”. Team members would be grateful to you for providing clarity on that front.

Next step — work on your compensation plan. As I highlighted above many people move to leadership roles because they consider it the only chance to earn more. Prove them wrong! Build a compensation plan that would enable senior individual contributors to noticeably increase their earnings and make sure that there’s 100% clarity on all the components of the compensation plan — such as the breakdown of the bonus(if it is included) and examples of all calculations.

Finally, your job as a leader is to communicate and, basically, sell this career path to the employees. Create a compelling list of arguments why a horizontal career would be an amazing choice for many. Make sure that you’re prepared to do a Q&A on this topic and answer challenging questions on it. It would be a good idea to include an overview of the career path to the new team member onboarding process, so from day one everyone has a clear understanding of different directions their careers may progress in the company.

Creating a career path is a massive challenge and positioning it to the team in the right way can be even more challenging. But if as a leader you do a good job doing it, you create room for long-term successful careers for your individual contributors as well as the fact that you will have people in the leadership role who are a really good fit for that role.



Artem Gurnov

Director, Account Development WW at Wrike