A fast-track career offers advancement opportunities to top-level positions based on a series of developmental experiences provided by the organization. Stated differently, high-potential individuals are given accelerated development opportunities, with the idea of their reaching senior-management levels more quickly than those who are not on such a track. There are individual (e.g., needs, personality, education) and organizational (e.g., staffing, structure) characteristics and processes associated with the “fast track.” High achievement-motivated individuals seek environments in which a path to the top echelons of the organization is explicit, with identifiable career benchmarks. This is the traditional upwardly mobile career path, also known as the linear career. Related concepts include upward mobility and high-potential managers.
Fast-track career paths are widely accepted in organizations as a means of attracting and retaining a pool of highly capable future leaders. Such programs are typically called leadership development or leadership continuity programs and provide the requisite experiences deemed necessary to prepare the participants for top-management positions. The underlying assumption is the competitive advantage an organization achieves by investing in leaders who will ensure the continued success of the organization. In reality, there is no single path that will lead to success, and the contemporary organizational environment characterized by mergers and acquisitions, reduction in organizational levels, global competition, and outsourcing have significantly increased the complexity of routes to top management. Organizations are rethinking “succession planning” models, and individuals have no guarantees that top management is attainable even when they appear to have such potential.
The literature has identified two types of fast-track individuals: the apparent fast track (AF-T) and real fast track (RF-T). To an observer, both types would look pretty much the same in the early career stages: highly energetic, bright individuals who know how to get things done. There would be also be differences, although they may not be observed as easily. The AF-T is characterized by rapid promotions and salary increases, with a lesser emphasis on developing the skills and relationships that are needed to make the executive transition (i.e., from middle to top management). Such individuals have a higher probability of derailing from the fast track because of their inability to handle the interdependence and diversity of higher-level management. RF-T individuals progress a bit more slowly, but they invest the time in honing the requisite skills and cultivating long-term relationships that increase the likelihood of reaching top-management positions. Such individuals understand that quick promotions are not the ultimate goal and that lateral moves can also be an effective path to the top.
Derailment from the fast track has become a major issue because of the resultant personal and organizational consequences. Individuals can become disillusioned and bitter because additional promotions are denied them as others continue to progress. The major factors associated with derailment include interpersonal relationships, team leadership, performance, and coping with change. Some managers find it difficult to make the transition from being task-based managers, the key to earlier successes, to becoming relationship leaders, which is required at higher levels. Such managers can be seen as manipulative by others. Performance issues often center on being overly ambitious with a lack of follow-through on promised results. Team leadership has become a critical aspect of top management. Building, developing, and leading an effective team may be difficult for managers who are individualistic, primarily concerned with task performance, and insensitive to the participative aspects underlying team dynamics. Finally, the inability to deal with change can manifest itself though unwillingness to learn new skills, work effectively with a new boss, or, more broadly, change as the business evolves.
The literature suggests a new psychological contract that emphasizes employability rather than vertical movement (promotions). In essence, organizations assist employees with development (rather than a path to the top), while individuals enhance their market value as a result of such opportunities. However, research also indicates that few organizations have modified their fast-track philosophies or behavior. This is a testimony to the importance of top leaders to organizational success. From a retention perspective, one of the true organizational shortcomings is clearly communicating expectations to individuals about their career progress. Some highly capable managers leave because they are unsure about their value to the organization.
Concerns have also been advanced that current fast-track models do not include sufficient diversity in the high-potential equation. The current cadre of primarily White male CEOs may be more comfortable promoting and encouraging White males on the fast track. Minorities and women may have to work harder to achieve equivalent levels of recognition regarding promotional opportunities to top management. The literature suggests that line managers be rewarded for achieving diversity in their staffing plans.
The fast track continues to generate significant interest from individuals and organizations. Much of the literature centers on the organizational perspective, with significantly less research on the individual perspective. Nevertheless, recent research has reexamined the role of an individual’s personality matching a fast-track career path and the role of work in the individual’s life space, particularly with reference to family and activities outside of work. It is also important to understand the paradoxical situation in which early career behaviors that were recognized and rewarded (e.g., AF-T) may, indeed, be the very same behaviors that ultimately prevent some fast-track individuals from attaining top-management leadership positions. Enhancing fast-track opportunities for women and minorities continues to be a concern in the literature. Organizations need to remain focused on recruiting, motivating, and retaining top leadership talent, while realistically communicating expectations and opportunities to the leaders of the future.
- Fisher, A. 2001. If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? New York: Morrow.
- Kovach, B. E. 1986. “The Derailment of Fast-track Managers.” Organizational Dynamics 15(2):41-48.
- Sonsino, S. 2003. “In Search of Tomorrow’s Leaders.” Business Strategy Review 14(1):67-74.
- Van Velsor, E. and Leslie, J. B. 1995. “Why Executives Derail: Perspectives across Time and Cultures.” Academy of Management Executive 9(4):62-72.
- Viney, C. and Adamson, S. 1997. “Paradoxes of Fast-track Career Management.” Personnel Review 26:174-187.