Having spent 30 years in various safety and risk management roles at corporations and small businesses, I realize how unique each professional's career path must be. I can remember becoming a trainee out of college at a major insurer and looking at their career path flowchart showing titles as stepping stones with connecting lines representing "time in position" as a surrogate measure for wisdom and experience.
It seemed so simple back then … just keep my head down, do my survey work, and attend specified training classes and within 5 years or less, I'd be promoted to the next title. Repeat this process enough times, and I'd surely be the vice president of the department in practically no time at all.
Of course, reality was a little bit different than the simple career path flow chart. I had to learn both technical details (what chemicals were really problematic, the maximum height of rolled paper storage, what size sprinkler pipes were too small, how an Occupational Safety and Health Administration 300 log must be completed, etc.) and how to conduct my daily tasks with competence (i.e., keeping time sheets updated, tracking company car mileage, reconciling expense accounts with receipts, learning how to address agents and business owners in an authoritative way without sounding aggressive or condescending, following up on previously issued recommendations, and more.)
As a trainee, I watched and learned how others conducted their day-to-day consultations and learned from quality reviews how to better structure my reports. I would confess to my manager that I could sense that some of the professionals that I was shadowing had good habits and not-so-good habits, and my boss was gracious enough to help me adopt the good habits without picking up too many of the bad ones. Similarly, my ability to capture the "right" details and report on them to illuminate an underwriter's accurate perception of the risk grew as I overcame mistakes that seemed to be pointed out in a merciless fashion. Sometimes the feedback was very harsh and made me angry (feeling I had been subject to a personal attack by the reviewer), but I've since learned that it was for my betterment, and, in clear hindsight, I confess that the harshest reviews helped me the most.
As I move through the middle-life of my career, I've often reflected on the diversity of professionals that I've encountered over the years. In my mind, I see a kaleidoscope of brilliant people moving in fixed patterns, and others struggling to find their place amid the display. To borrow terms from medieval days, we're surrounded by folks moving through various stages of development: from apprentice to journeyman to master.
Further segmenting these individuals are their unique balance of professional competencies and technical knowledge—some can cite chapter and verse of specific regulations but struggle to convey their expertise in a manner that convinces others to take urgent action. Similarly, there are some great communicators who can sell ice to Eskimos but struggle to clearly explain the underlying issue with sufficient detail. The charts below should help to display my thought process.
|Preliminary Technical Expertise (Still learning to define what they "don't know yet")
|Competent Technical Expertise displayed daily and is eager to assist others while recognizing his/her own existing limitations
|Mastered Technical Expertise with validation by other masters and shares expertise as an enthusiastic instructor
|Rudimentary Professional Competencies (Struggles at times with proper form and makes mistakes that are easily corrected for the sake of learning)
|Comfortable with Professional Competencies and is an encouraging or stabilizing force for professional growth to those around him/her
|Demonstrates Professional Competence during each interaction with other masters to advance thought leadership and tactical applications in their trade and tactfully guides others to improve their form and function
|Management Reporting and Span of Control
I believe the distinction between apprentice, journeyman, and master are reasonably clear, and while various employers may disagree slightly over the fine line between each category (especially as may apply to current human-resources-imposed titles), it provides a good working structure to discuss career growth.
Likewise, people are welcome to argue with my selections used to highlight perceived differences in technical expertise and "soft skill" competencies. My aim was to show one as rooted in book learning and the other as more commonly acquired in the field or on the job by making mistakes and learning from them. It's not critical to split hairs over these—the main point is that a balance of both helps one succeed in most consultative occupations.
Within loss control services (LCS), we have seen a decade or two where there has been diminished and sporadic investment in new trainee programs. Many safety organizations and insurers seemed content to trade professionals almost as easily as baseball teams might trade players during a season. This helped proficient professionals obtain bonuses and salary increases but didn't build any bench strength for the time when many professionals would be seeking to retire to spend time with grandchildren. Recently, a new wave of trainee classes and aggressive recruiting from colleges has blossomed to address the "graying" of the LCS workforce.
The incoming class of graduates has an appreciation of the many technical details needed to review a current safety program, or spot gaps that would undermine results, but may lack a practical understanding of how to translate that knowledge into action to produce specific reports to key constituents. Further, they may lack some of the polished panache needed to accelerate their productivity.
In short, and by no "fault" of their own, they still need to learn how to harness their technical might to get consistent, results-generating outcomes.
If I can overcome knowledge gaps by going back to school for certifications, degrees, or practical content learning, is it possible to fast-track the development of competencies? I believe that there are ways to accelerate the development of professional competencies, but it's not an easy task. Local managers and peers who are at advanced stages of their careers ought to be able to mentor, coach, correct, align, and encourage apprentices (and journeymen or fledgling masters) to develop stronger people skills and tradecraft beyond their limited experience. Sometimes soft skills could be fast-tracked through workshops where the attributes are role-played in case studies. I think the reason this isn't done more often is because of the following.
If fast-tracking can only get us so far, we will have to continue to rely on mentoring. At issue is making the time, demonstrating the patience, finding the right ways to explain, demonstrate, guide, and enable the preferred behaviors. Simply put, we've got to find the right mentor who has the time, is willing to instruct, and can imprint "the right behaviors."
Few professionals accept the call to mentor others. It's a personal drain on their time and productivity, and there may be hidden insecurities around trying to equip a younger peer in doing their job well. Ultimately, as a mentor, I recognize that I'm training my successor, but I have to be confident that my manager isn't going to kick me to the curb if my trainee can do my job for less money.
The corporate (or departmental) culture will play a large role in promoting a smooth career path in practice. Consistent reinforcement of a grand vision with real benefits to clients will help people focus on how they contribute to something larger than themselves and are willing to collaborate, mentor, and partner up with others in the team to achieve that vision.
On the other hand, organizations that focus on what's 2 inches in front of their own shoes may find less cooperation from team members who are scrambling to meet deadlines and are evaluated on "personal wins" instead of "team wins."
When the apprentice-journeyman-master trail is a steady progression of learning, expanding skills, mastering competencies, and learning that effective networking is about serving others as they try to achieve their goals, then there is an opportunity to fill the pipeline with passionate professionals. Ideally, apprentices should see masters in "awe" and treat journeymen with respect since these people are responsible to teach them and to help them accelerate their growth. Hopefully, journeymen and masters can remember what it felt like to be the novice and exhibit compassion and generosity as they pursue their own career maturation.
So, where are you on your career path? Are you in an organization that invests in the next generation, or do you need to safeguard your time to meet tight deadlines? Giving back may not always be characterized as an apprentice relationship but could also include masters providing captivating presentations that summarize complex problems in simple terms and help to draw out inductive reasoning from the audience to see the problem in a new light and new solution sets. Do you believe that the LCS cadre are "graying out" (losing many professionals to retirement)? Has your team invested in new trainees or helping experienced folks make the transition into risk services? Consider dropping me a note with some feedback or launch a discussion at the IRMI group on LinkedIn.
Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.