Career Path (or pit): a potato-based semi-factual tale

Written by Andrew Jardine

My first few days at the Bolivian Potato Company were a hardcore mix of induction training, colleague get-togethers and senior management palm pressing. Eight-hour days of back to back, non-stop, relentless walking around punctuated with systems and workflow process bombardment.

When my laptop and log in details finally arrived (week three), it was quite a relief to be left alone for 5 minutes and feel like I was actually doing some work.

Time, as it tends to, passed. I did my bit, shouldered my load and at times carried water for others. Time continued to pass; line managers came and went and I was blessed to have one, but in the main cursed with the others.

One grey morning in late March, waking to my tweety birdsong alarm, I realised I was now five years in and had gone absolutely nowhere. As I gazed deep in to my decaf latte, starting to question my dreams of potato corporation world domination, my mind drifted to a recent conversation with a well meaning friend, and a business card they had given me for their ‘weapon of choice’ recruiter.

After a couple of days soul searching I raised the subject of my lack of mobility with my line manager who assured me she’d raise it with HR. More time passed and the weeks turned to months. I turned to making that phone call and found a new job.

On handing in my notice I was immediately informed by HR (well, by a mega warm, super empathic email from HR) that the timing of my departure could not be worse. It seemed the company had started a Career Path Programme and as one of several High Potential Employees, I’d been selected to be part of the first wave. In short, big things awaited me if I could just hold on a little longer.

And once again, as it likes to, time passed.

At my half-year appraisal I reminded my new line manager about the Career Path Programme and my being a High Potential Employee. Keen to move forward I asked if there was something I should be doing?

‘Be a little patient’ was the reply and I sensed I’d caught him off guard; as if this was the first time they’d heard about the two initiatives. ‘We can hardly promote you if there are no openings can we?’ I found myself nodding in agreement, yet could not fully get my head around the implications of the statement.

In the spirit of openness I voiced a small concern regarding the point of my being on the programme and within an hour received a typo-littered email asking if I’d like to meet with my designated Programme Support HR Colleague?

Owing to ‘several conflicting priorities’ the meeting would have to be set four weeks hence, but it felt good to be moving forward again. On the day of my meeting I was informed my Programme Support HR Colleague had been reassigned to go off and support some headcount reduction scheme and my shiny new Programme Support HR Colleague would be assigned in due course.

Although an anonymous email address, I offered in reply that whilst waiting I could perhaps start to get a better insight into our operational finances, or some form of generic finance training, as I felt this to be something of a weak area. I was asked to attend a face to face meeting later that day where a stone-faced and rather not so supportive HR colleague asked ‘what possible use finance training would be to me?’

Not really sure how to answer the question, I took the opportunity to offload a little regarding my growing concerns with both the Career Path Programme and timescale to date for my achieving absolutely nothing.

‘Look at it this way’ I was reassured. ‘Your career path is not like the production line down in the factory, we can’t simply pop you on a conveyor belt and take you from one place to another. Surely it’s better that nothing happens, than we give you lots of extra tasks that in the end lead to nothing anyway, right?’

…Good talk.

I thanked my HR Colleague for the HR wisdom and career insight. By the end of that day I’d made the call to my recruiter, by the new year I had a new job, a modest pay rise, some additional responsibilities and a fairly reasonable understanding of profit and loss – which is fascinating stuff by the way!


Over the past decade the business world seem to be clambering over itself to provide some kind of career path; like it’s the only way to motivate and retain talent. But it all falls down if you don’t have jobs to move people into, right? You don’t get jobs if you don’t have growth, and you won’t have growth without a strategy (or is it talent and we just loop this sucker until we lose the will to live or retire?), etc etc, blah de blah ad infinitum …

Or, you could explore a general organisation-wide learning strategy that can support and drives professional growth in line with the current and perceived future needs of the business? This in itself offers one much needed mutually beneficial outcome of a career path – more rounded, skilled, prepared colleagues, ready to make a move up (or along) when needed.

High potential employee schemes are really great, they always make for an exciting Appraisal, not to mention giving the business a cracking spreadsheet to dip in when wondering who to inflict Succession plans on. However, we are back to ‘where can you go?’ Where in the high potential psyche is ‘eleven’, if it even exists.

Of course all super-savvy HP employees must learn to accept the many real-world constraints and limitations put upon a business by those dark market forces (baaad market forces). The employer (by proxy, front line managers) should better manage expectation and everyone in the operational universe needs to be, at all and any time, fully informed and totally in sync. So, that’s all good then; brilliant!

I’m exhausted just writing it out.

Or, perhaps it’s better to have a pseudo loyalty programme and find more realistic ways of showing the love for great employee commitment? Way less admin (always a big yaaaay!) and much less room for confusion, frustration and several other nasty ‘ions’.

Putting in place an agreed, budgeted for and understood management development framework with some simplistic communicating vehicles (for all personnel, whether performing and potent, or not) before bringing those talented few on, is also highly recommend.

Quick note about all those senior managers seen shifting companies because there’s nowhere left to go, it isn’t the end of the world. Many are so far removed from day to day business activities that their contribution is generally more strategic (aka theoretical) than practical anyway.

Now your front line and second tier managers, they DO have real value and not just inwardly in terms of who and what they know and do, or all the development time invested in them (to get them to function under the aforementioned senior team).

There is also very real external, commercial value in terms of what they take away. If it’s to another industry the impact is maybe not so bad, if it’s to a competitor, big boooo and silly you for not putting some clause in their contract. Then there’s the leader-size hole they leave behind, sniffle… That hole you go and recruit externally for, leaving everyone on or involved with your career path thinking, what the… ?

When dealing with career path calibre employees, by definition you are dealing with your brightest and best (or at least you should be). It’s probably a good idea to think through the expectations you wish to set, the opportunities you have internally and overall what kind of experience you will give. Naturally this should relate to both job roles and learning outcomes.

#JustSaying #LoveEmOrLoseEm

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