Middle managers must expertly navigate through the unpredictability of market demands and the constant pressure to enhance productivity. These managers are key in bridging upper management and front-line employees, yet they often find themselves struggling to adapt to shifting business priorities and objectives.

Traditional vs. dual-track promotion systems

Traditional promotion systems

In conventional promotion structures, career advancement typically involves transitioning from an individual contributor role to a managerial position. This assumes that excelling in a specific role naturally equips an individual with the skills needed for effective people management. However, skill sets for individual contribution and management are distinct, and not every top performer excels at managing teams.

Dual-track promotion systems

Recognizing the limitations of the traditional model, more organizations are adopting dual-track promotion systems. These frameworks offer two paths for career progression: one for individuals who aspire to grow as managers and another for those who wish to advance as individual contributors. This system acknowledges that people have different career aspirations and strengths, and provides a structure that caters to these varied paths.

Statistics and data

The need for dual-track systems is founded on alarming statistics about the challenges that middle managers face. Research indicates that nearly 74% of middle managers feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and 40% of new managers are actively seeking other job opportunities. A study by McKinsey revealed that a surprising 43% of managers experience some form of burnout, highlighting the intense pressure and challenges associated with these roles.

Shopify’s dual tracks implementation

Success for individual contributors

Shopify’s dual track introduction points to a shift in career development, particularly benefiting individual contributors, termed “crafters.” In this system, crafters can excel and progress in their careers without transitioning to managerial roles – instead focusing on their core competencies, driving innovation and efficiency in their specialty.

Shopify’s dual-track setup acknowledges the diverse aspirations and strengths of its workforce. Crafters at Shopify enjoy the opportunity to deepen their expertise and still contribute meaningfully to the company’s objectives without the added responsibilities of people management. As such, employees’ career trajectories are more aligned with their interests and strengths – as well as Shopify’s strategic priorities.

Impact on managers

The dual-track system has wide-reaching implications for the role and well-being of Shopify’s managers. In traditional settings, paths to advancement often requires a shift to people management, regardless of an individual’s aptitude or interest in such roles. 

With the dual-track system, Shopify makes sure that individuals who transition to management are genuinely inclined and suited for these roles.

Offering a distinct managerial track has helped Shopify empower individuals who have a genuine interest and skill in leadership and people management to pursue these roles. As a result, the company benefits from having managers who are skilled, motivated, and as such, are more likely to be effective and satisfied in their roles – reducing turnover and building up team performance.

Walmart’s dual-track option

Walmart – much like Shopify – recognized the value of dual-track career paths and implemented this strategy within Walmart Global Tech. This sector of Walmart has launched a Fellow program, aiming to foster growth in individual expertise without mandating a shift to managerial roles. 

Fellows in Walmart’s dual-track program are senior leaders who have extensive knowledge in specific technical specialties, such as AI or supply chain management.

Walmart has seen an increase in employee engagement by enabling employees to advance in their careers while focusing on their core competencies . The initiative correlates with a downward trend in turnover rates, suggesting that employees value the opportunity to grow without the pressure to adopt managerial responsibilities.

Organizational advantages of implementing dual-track systems

From an organizational perspective, dual-track systems help reduce unnecessary hierarchy and the potential bureaucracy that can stifle innovation and agility within a company. Allowing more employees to remain in and advance within individual contributor roles, organizations can maintain a flatter structure that promotes collaboration and quick decision-making.

When employees know they have multiple avenues for advancement, the competition for a single managerial role fades, leading to a more cooperative and supportive work environment.

Dual-track systems can help mitigate internal competitiveness, particularly the kind that can be counterproductive or create conflict within teams.

These systems also help companies better leverage the talents and skills of their employees. Organizations can optimize their workforce’s effectiveness and efficiency by leading individuals down advancement paths in areas where they excel and are passionate. Alignment of skills and roles can lead to better business outcomes, innovation, and adaptability, all of which are key in the rapidly changing digital market.

Tim Boesen

April 5, 2024

4 Min