On the Right Track: How to Develop Career Paths for Experts

Experts tend to approach their career growth differently than other high-potential professionals. While an upward leadership track driven by power and achievement is a more traditional leadership career path[1], this type of career journey isn’t typically a strong motivator for experts. For an expert, getting ahead in their profession means becoming increasingly more accomplished in their field of expertise. As such, the nature of an expert’s work becomes an integral part of their self-identity as they strive for deep expertise and job stability.

“I think it’s worth defining an expert closely as, in my experience, it often seems misunderstood. The key traits of an expert are knowledge and experience. They understand subject matter detail in great depth. What this means is they can dissect an issue, analyze core components of the problem, and apply focused solutions. It’s the depth of knowledge through experience that separates the expert.”
Stephen Gaskell, Head of Labor Relations, Takeda Pharmaceuticals International

To best engage and accelerate your expert talent, it’s helpful to understand how to align an expert’s career goals with the goals of your organization. Here are some thoughts on retooling your expert talent strategy to ensure they’re on the right track.

An Ideal Career Progression for Experts

For experts, a linear progression up the corporate ladder can actually be self-alienating. With professional mastery as their goal, experts seek to uncover opportunities in their day-to-day work to develop their expertise. They’re driven by a deep desire to acquire knowledge and build their skills, characteristically pushing themselves to have a profound impact and make a difference in their work.[2] That’s why experts may decline promotions; they have the knowledge and ability to become functional leaders but lack the motivation to do so.

If career advancement at your organization is a traditional upward leadership track, your experts may become frustrated and see little prospect for career growth. Recognizing this fundamental distinction in career motivation can be the difference between retaining your company’s experts or having them search for greener—and more appealing—pastures.

Creating a Career Track for Experts

To retain your experts and address their unique needs for career advancement, companies need to develop a fresh talent approach that includes:

Career Branching

Career branching can be a valuable way to create a career track for an expert on your team. By working collaboratively with them—and choosing mutually agreed upon milestones for professional growth—you can determine career options that support an expert’s aspirations. Since an upwardly mobile career path isn’t usually desired, try focusing on other professional activities that allow your experts to build their expertise, such as:

• Increased responsibility
• Developing new critical knowledge
• Mentoring more junior expert talent
• Building cross-functional teams
• Acting as a specialist or advisor
• Leading high-profile cross-functional teams


Companies often link compensation to promotion, which may mean rethinking how you financially reward your experts. As part of career pathing, identifying clear performance measures that align with an expert’s career ambitions makes it possible to compensate them for achieving business impact. It’s also a way to acknowledge the valuable contributions your experts are making to the company.

Developing compensation strategies that reward experts can take different forms, depending on the organization and industry. One example comes from British Petroleum, or BP, the multinational oil and gas company. They firmly acknowledged the critical need for the expertise of their industrial relations specialist to manage the complexity—and urgency—of negotiating labor contracts that involved multiple international stakeholders. BP used the versatility of their bonus structure to reward the successful delivery of these key negotiations—mediations which ensured both ongoing positive employee-employer relations and continued productive global business operations.

By trusting the deep knowledge of their expert, including the ability to respond to the fluidity of the situation, BP was able to avert disruptions to their oil production and the global economy.

Whatever the organizational setting, experts understand the stakes; they know they need to deliver and get results. Thinking beyond the traditional notion of a typical career trajectory and compensation structure can be a game-changer for your experts while also creating a greater strategic advantage for your company. For HR professionals and business leaders, reconsidering your talent strategy can ensure a more deeply satisfying career experience for your experts.

Unlock the greatest version of yourself and your organization