The concept of dual career ladder and talent retention – Recognizing the differences between specialists and generalists contributes to attract and retain talents

By Maria Candida Baumer de Azevedo (Published in the July 2011 edition of the BSP Journal


The article discusses the dual career ladder concept, its origin, characteristics and assumptions. It is a literature review of the topic, and summarizes in a single text the different aspects that have been published so far. After the presentation of the differences between the generalist and specialist profiles,there is a discussion on the feasibility of this model for different kinds of business and its impact in relation to attracting and retaining talents. Th article considers both individual and organizational perspectives.

Keywords: Dual career ladder, specialists and generalists, attracting talents, retention of talents.


It is common to hear phrases like: “My son has now become and important, he is a manager”; “When I am a boss life will be better”; “He is a successful professional, the company director of Acme Company”. Especially in Brazilian culture, there is a belief that identifies leadership positions with success and supposes that positions with no management scope are less important. This paradigm breaks down when we mention names like Albert Einstein, Mozart, Dráuzio Varela, Peter Drucker, Pele and Ayrton Senna. In addition to being reference in their areas and internationally recognized, these people share the fact of having achieved excellence through the performance of activities where they had no formal responsibility for people management and systemic results. Their relevance has been made of individual or collective achievements.


Not long ago there was in the corporate world a unique possible way for career evolution: the linear progression (Figure 1). In this format, the professional has three possibilities of movement within the company: vertical growth, stagnation or dismissal. With the development of studies related to organizational skills and professional profiles, it became clear that people are not equal (Drucker, 1999). Even having been born in the same family, attended the same school, had the same friends, same identical academic life and profession, there are differences. For more like the way it is, how each one reacts to stimuli and experiences varies from person to person.

Cases in which ” a great professional has been promoted and the company has earned a bad leader” often arise in business conversations. Does this simply mean individual incompetence? Being competent or not is far from being a binary question. It is a subjective one, since to demonstrate competence for a particular activity is not a guarantee of the necessary abilities for all others. Situations like this show that linear career has limitations for the personal growth of people with highly technical profiles (Noe, 2002). As people differ, a single career path does not fit all the profiles. That recognized, energy, resources and time should be directed to transform a competent person in a star performer (Drucker, 1999).

From the need to use the best of each one emerged the concept of dual career ladder, a promotion system whose branches represent hierarchical parallel developments in management and the shaft represents the specialist technician axis. Each route has a series of steps and ranges of action, each one ever more demanding and better paid than the previous (Goldner & Ritter, 1967). For its dual format, the dual career ladder is presented as a plan of career development that offers, from a certain seniority upwards, ascendant mobility to professionals without requiring them to be compulsorily placed in positions of supervision or management in order to grow hierarchically (Cesare & Thornton, 1993; Noe, 2002). It is a way to promote those with a given training and / or specific technical skill but without interest or to pursue a shaft profile management (Society of Human Resources Management, 2010).

FIGURE 1. Linear career versus dual career ladder. The nomenclature varies according to the order of seniority of positions and to the politics of positions of a given corporation.


For a company to succeed in establishing and maintaining a dual career ladder model, experts must be so recognized as generalists (Zanfardino, 2008), minimizing feelings of injustice (Cesare & Thornton, 1993). Equity is the key word. This means equal payment opportunities, and the same goes for benefits, status (Feuer, 1986), decision making (Buckleset al., 1984) and development (Michael Roth, 1982) for both paths.

It appears that there is equity when professionals feel that both career paths receive the same prestige (Feuer, 1986). To this purpose it is vital that the a specialist axis in not viewed as a tank of failed professionals, with a history of deliveries inferior to the expected (Michael Roth, 1982; Buckleset al, 1984). Despite the different skills and profiles demanded for each path, the rigor with which each axis is evaluated must be the same (Zanfardino, 2008), with the same level of demands in terms of objectives and goals (Cesare & Thornton, 1993). More than simple words, the behavior of professionals in key positions works as a model and encourages people to act like them (Schein, 1985). Otherwise, any kind of favoritism would eliminate the sense of fairness and turn the dual ladder career ladder into a concept with no credibility (Zanfardino, 2008).


The difficulty in recognizing the applicability of a positions and salaries structure as equivalent for both paths is given either by cultural paradigms (Zanfardino, 2008), sometimes through ignorance, and sometimes by the lack of need for such a structure due to the nature of the business. Just like any other practice or policy of management, the existence of a dual career ladder structure only makes sense when compatible with the business.

The demand for the specialist axis is more common in segments with high scientific, medical, technological and engineering components. This happens because these areas usually require a high level of training and technical knowledge, requiring also rapid and constant innovation and evidential credentials and qualifications for the level of risk often involved (Stateof Louisiana Department of Civil Service – Fiester, 2010). In the construction industry, large building projects require experts and structural calculus. In the health care area, recognizing a hospital as a reference in a given pathology only occurs when the institution has in its staff the best doctors in the specialty. It is not only desirable, but sometimes this is the difference between healing and death. In cases where the expert is critical to the essence of the core business, compensation and recognition should follow the same logic and order of magnitude dedicated to generalists.

When we observe the segment of food in gourmet restaurants, chefs, the sommeliers and restaurateurs experts are essential and should be rewarded and recognized as such. On the other hand, whsn it comes to a network of “restaurants per kilogram” of food, or university restaurants, the level of sophistication, depth, tracking trends, creativity, and anticipation of market requirements are considerably smaller (as well as margins for the business and enabling the consumer to pay the value ). In this case the compensation and recognition equivalence are no longeressenial for the business. When compatible to the business, equity should be pursued in a corporate way, not as a way to meet the specific demands of an individual and another (which would indicate a personalized career and salary management, often conflicting with the imperative of impartiality in the corporate environment).


Being a generalist does not mean the absence of an acting area, but a performance management in one’s area of expertise. From the external point of view – the market – all generalist is also an expert by mastering at the same time management practices, nuances and particularities of the business (Mintzberg, 1973). When it comes to both axes (specialist and generalist), multiple possible paths in each axis are implied. In the technical axis there are so many specialties as every business needs: medical, biological, chemical, engineering, research, people, logistics, marketing and so on. The same is true in the generalist axis, because the manager manages multiplicity in some kind of expertise (by area, segment, business and / or industry). However, internally we must recognize the differences between them (Bailyn, 1980).

Specialist Generalist
Focus Result of the process, specific improvement, descoveries, problem solving, high specialization Global result
Vision Specific – deepKnows much about some areas Systemic – generalKnows a little about each aspect of a given business
Perspectives and knowledge Micro (details)Smaller variety of themes and bigger deepness. Knowledge elite MacroGreater variety of themes and smaller deepness.
Hierarchical growth For each step the expectation of a bigger degree of freedom and de autonomy in the practice of one’s specialty, and in the direction of one’s projects Each step brings the expectation of more power and influence. Freedom and autonomy are seen as rewards for good work and not as duties
Management Of processes and projects Of people, processes, and projects
Commitment (identification) Commitment  to the specialty area Commitment to the organization
Learning It takes years to master the technical aspects. Traning for thinking in a meticulous way about the area of performance, using a precise and objective terminology A faster speed of conceptual evolution (due to a shallower context). More frequent and more valued changes of area – for the achievement of a fully systemic management
Simultaneity and productivity Accumulates “specialty”More productive when perfoming in one initiative at a time More productive when coordinating multiple activities
Decisions making When before tangible and complete evidences Based on intangible and limited evidences.
Source of motivation LearningEnrichment of the work Advance, progressBroadening of scope

TABLE 1. Based on Ritti and Goldner, 1967; Raelin, 1987; Cesare and Thornton, 1993; Wang 2008; Edelberg, 2008.

In spite of the particularities, many strategies for attracting, motivating, developing and retaining talents err by failing to distinguish these two populations (Cesare & Thornton, 1993). When such differences are recognized, the company gainsconceptual and consistent subsidies which allow the improvement of:

  • The specialist’s own work;
  • The internal processes of allocation and evaluation of technical activities;
  • The career opportunities and development aspired to by experts (since for general practitioners this tends to occur in a systematic way);
  • The forms of financial and non financial rewardin of specialists.

When this does not happen, the experts tend to leave the company, even when they are in areas of high potential and growth (Cesare & Thornton, 1993).


The ignorance or simple lack of recognition of the differences between the two populations takes highly skilled professionals to be hired and promoted based only on their technical or supervisory positions to manage. There is not much concern about the training they receive and whether or not they are willing to assume such positions (Buckles et al, 1984). Unsuccessful movements can generate several cost to the company:

  • Additional workload. Someone needs to do the work that the contractor or promoted professional was unable of.
  • Sub-production. When there are no available resources to perform activities that are no longer made.
  • Lost investments (sunken costs). The sums spent on recruitment and selection, investments in integration (the period in which the professional is paid to learn without actually being productive).
  • Frustration. Disappointment of the team that welcomed the professional.
  • Nuisance. Discomfort of other experts that have been invited to the same challenge. This can give rise to the fear that there is a problem with the manager of the position, the staff or the clients.

On the other hand, beyond the individual frustration the expert becomes obsolete. Time, effort and energy devoted to his updating to perform as a managercomes from what woud have been invested to keep him updated in his field of expertise. Thus, it creates a gap between how much it is updated in his expertise and what the market demands in terms of modernity so that he keeps being considered a reference in the area (Buckles et al, 1984). Even when it is recognized that what happened was a failure of the individual as a manager – and and even when one remembers that this individual used to be a success as a specialist – an invisible and uncounscious mark of “inability” is formed in the eyes of others and in one’s own,which limits the professional’s effectiveness in his field.

When the company does not have an egalitarian structure of wages for both paths of the ladder, the failure of a specialist as a manager usually leads to the end of his employment contract. This usually happens because the company does not have in any position with equal or equivalent pay without management demands, and Brazilian law does not permit demoting someone in terms of salary. In the name of good management of the financial pillar, that individual becomes too expensive.


Investing in self-knowledge can be classified as something modern. 20 years ago this theme did not go near the topics of the list of top executives. This is a recent development. Due to the absence of options beyond the linear career, there is now a growing movement of experienced professionals with a purely generalist trend to self-knowledge and thus to give themselves the right to change to the specialist axis.

An interesting case is that of a team leader with passages for several multinationals, excellent results related to customer retention and quality of processes delivered, but frightening in terms of her staff turnover and overtime volume. After a conversation with the responsible HR, this case began to be developed. She was a brilliant professional, passionate about the company and her technical work, with deep knowledge but on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Upon hearing her team as a part of an evaluation to identify the professional’s potential, it was clear that that was a classic case of an excellent technician suffering with the obligation to occupy a managerial position.

The change in position was talked over, explained and reasoned with the protagonist directly involved, as well as their immediate mediate supervisors, besides people from her team. The internal paradigm shift of that professional,who was influenced by the social beliefs in the worthlessness of positions without management took some time, many conversations and the intervention of a therapist. After two months in the position of an expert, dealing with people from all areas, with assignments of high complexity – but without directly managing people –, the the results exceeded the expectations and proved exceptional: an increase in self-satisfaction, reduced stress and related diseases, improvement in interpersonal relationships, reduction in staff turnover and overtime, more quality and speed in achieving results on the new role.

Furthermore, this case provided a benchmark for other professionals to get rid of their own myths and seek position chamges more suitable to their profiles. Without the existence of the specialist axis, the waste would be relevant in terms of turnover (loss of talent that could not stand the style of a leader without having a potential for it), under-utilization of expertise, health problems and other reflexes.


Attracting and retaining people is an strategic issue for any organization in today’s competitive times. Retaining talents is critical to the maintenance of the competitive advantage of a company (Cesare & Thornton, 1993). It is not only a quantitative demand for “muscles”, but also for brains, since these are the only truly sustainable competitive advantage as defined by Barney (1991) and Hoffman. (Hoffman (2000): Sustainable competitive advantage is the prolonged benefit of implementing a unique strategy to create value without simultaneity with any current or potential competitors, and in order to none of them has the ability to duplicate the benefits of such a strategy. Attraction and retaining talents is the first major benefit of implementing a dual career ladder structure

The organization that offers specific paths for technicians and managers with equivalent rewards has great advantages in recruitment(Meisel, 1977), development and motivation of experts (Cesare & Thornton, 1993). Consequently unwanted turnover is reduced, due to the fact that the opportunities for senior professionals become bigger and better (State of Louisiana Department of Civil Service – Fiester, 2010). With a dual career ladder option, the experts can go further in terms of freedom, compensation and decision making. By allowing everyone to choose their area of expertise, the dual career ladder structure eliminates the pressure to create “special positions” as a way to grant salary increases in a personalized format. And it makes the experts see real external stimuli in order to continue improving and developing skills (Fiester, 2010), without having to suffer in some positions that require a little of their strengths and a lot of weaknesses.

From the standpoint of the individuals, to have the option to grow hierarchically doing what you love (and therefore being where you are seen as a reference) appears as the great advantage of working in organizations with an effective dual career ladder policy. As the available working energy is a finite resource, do what you love means increased productivity and self-satisfaction. To expect the company to realize this and offer to its employees the option of different directions shows an attitude which is inconsistent with the logic of self-managed careers. According to it, each individual acts as the protagonist of his / her choices, goals and career path (Hall, 1996; Briscoeand Hall, 2006).

At the same time that is up to the companies to have the dual career ladder structure and to communicate it to their teams, it’s up to each employee, as the protagonist of his/her career,to invest in self-awareness to know their strengths and seek corporations and paths where they are relevant. According to Drucker (1999), the secret is not to try to change yourself, because success is unlikely in this case, but to know and exploit your strengths. What would happen to Michael Phelps if he wanted to become a major Formula 1 driver? Would him be so successful in terms of prizes as Michael Schumacher? Or, if he chose to be an entrepreneur, would he be the next Bill Gates or Carlos Slim?


From theory to practice, the key points required points to create a dual career ladder are:

  • To define criteria for evaluating the positions of both axes and the proficiency required for each position;
  • To create a description of each position, including the steps required to reach them, then move on to the next;
  • To conduct market researches to compare the remuneration ranges for each level (Fiester, 2010);
  • To provide unbiased evaluation mechanisms for the correct identification of profiles (specialists and generalists), allowing each individual to compare their interests and skills with the ones of those who occupy technical or managerial positions (Noe, 2002);
  • To ensure equity in total compensation among peer professionals, independently of either the specialist or generalist axes (Fiester, 2010). Even if the salaries are different, the sum of salaries, benefits and variable compensations should be equivalent;
  • To communicate intensely the launching of the dual career ladder structure. The communication should be recurrent throughout the stay of individuals in the company, facilitating the self-planning of their careers. Professionals should be informed about short and long term opportunities and about the requirements for an active role in their career development (Michael Roth, 1982).

Why then is still unusual to find companies with consistent career structures? As the subject is more widely discussed and known, ##that HR professionals become better qualified, and that managers focus on strengths by management companies whose business requires the same seniority that experts will have general it. It is a matter of time.

While few companies have a structured program of career Y, those who are great specialists in nature will go on general axis. The absence of equitable remuneration and recognition makes monetary law the main stimulus for choosing one path over another. It is a choice based on short-term financial return. In the medium and long term, someone doing something “medium”, reach and speed of ascent returns dwindling.

As the quest for increased self-knowledge, reflection on past, present and future no longer taboo and become obliged to perform well resolved, questions about which way to go involves more than just financial aspects. At that time, companies that do not have the option Y, lose attractiveness to potential candidates and their ability to retain current talent.


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