Horizontal Ignition: How Skills Can Replace Jobs
Talent Development Leader

Horizontal Ignition: How Skills Can Replace Jobs

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Life aspirations don’t always align with the career development and talent management frameworks encountered in one’s professional sphere. While the mechanisms for career advancement and talent cultivation are inescapable realities for leaders, there may be an alternative consideration.

At my recent ATD23 workshop in San Diego, a diverse group of professionals experienced this proposition firsthand from me. Several thought-provoking queries guided our dialogue:

  • What if employees no longer desire to ascend the traditional career ladder?
  • What if the allure of the corner office no longer defines an employee’s quest for professional fulfillment?
  • What if our understanding of growth and progression is fundamentally flawed?

While it remains a given that succession planning and merit-based promotions will persist, a new question arises: What happens when upward mobility ceases to be the cornerstone of an employee’s professional satisfaction? What alternate career pursuits might pique their interest?

During our workshop deliberations, a unifying theme emerged: skills.

It’s crucial to recognize that many employees aren’t necessarily motivated by climbing the corporate ladder; instead, they’re driven by a thirst for growth and learning. These individuals continue to desire enriching experiences, crave lateral roles or unique assignments, and are eager to acquire knowledge, build relationships, and hone their skills.

Significantly, these employees wish to leverage their newly acquired skills not only in their professional sphere but also in their personal lives. As such, our emphasis should shift from solely prioritizing vertical professional ambition to endorsing what I term horizontal ignition. This shift necessitates a transformation in HR departments and learning teams to embrace a mindset focused on lateral skill-building. Failure to do so might prompt employees to seek opportunities elsewhere, at which point a mindset shift would be overdue and ineffective.

Moreover, the prevailing reliance of organizations on a jobs-centric talent model—by extension, the entrenched ideology of job descriptions and job families—poses a significant impediment to implementing the horizontal ignition mindset.

In their seminal 2023 book, The Empathy Advantage, Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley insightfully opine: “Job descriptions are often little more than a portrait of the last person to hold that position. They tend to be filled with irrelevant requirements and, often, requirements for outdated skills...”

The traditional job family structure—bifurcating job roles into specific functions, such as marketing or engineering, often predicated on merit or tenure—fails to cater to those aspiring to grow beyond their assigned job family, leaving them skeptical about their potential to thrive in an entirely different function.

Therefore, in the context of skills, there are three primary objectives pertaining to horizontal ignition that require your attention:

  • Cultivate your employees’ capabilities across various departments within the organization.
  • Nurture your employees’ skillsets.
  • Evolve your understanding to adopt a skill-centric ecosystem mindset.

Ravin Jesuthasan, the author of Work Without Jobs and a senior partner at asset management firm Mercer, shared his views on the importance of skills and why organizations must build new related capabilities.

Two key ideas lie at the heart of Jesuthasan’s argument. He expounds: “First, how we redesign work to enable talent to flow as seamlessly as possible while sending it the signals, assets, and resources to enable that talent to perpetually reinvent itself. And second is how we envision that talent experience so we meet people on their individual terms instead of forcing them to fit our ‘one size fits most’ model.”

Jesuthasan contends that the days of organizations relying on job descriptions are numbered. He envisions a future where “skills become the most important asset” for organizations and employees. Discarding job descriptions will empower people to reinvent themselves, moving into roles that motivate them to perform.


As Jesuthasan astutely observes, no one aspires for monotony in their roles. In fact, monotony is often a precursor to disengagement. Persisting with a job description-based management approach could pigeonhole individuals into repetitive tasks, neglecting their craving for an ever-evolving skills development atmosphere.

Skills and an organization’s talent marketplace strategy are pivotal elements in shaping the future of work. This is where HR and learning teams come in. “Not only do they uncover the skills that people already have,” Jesuthasan notes, “they’re able to match those skills to emerging bodies of work and able to stretch the capacity of the workforce.”

Throughout our workshop in San Diego, the group deliberated various potential strategies to facilitate the concept of horizontal ignition. Three primary suggestions emerged from our discussions:

  • Lateral hopping: Establishing a culture that empowers employees to enhance their skills through diverse assignments and opportunities.
  • Portfolio investing: Investing in employees' skills development beyond their core areas of expertise.
  • Skills-based operating ethos: Cultivating a mindset prioritizing skills and abilities over rigid job descriptions, paving the way for more flexible, gig-style assignments.

In the grand scheme of organization development, HR and learning professionals must champion this shift towards horizontal ignition. It will involve a fundamental change in mindset that shifts the focus from vertical career progression to lateral skill development.

As we tread this path, let us remember that our employees are not just job titles but repositories of diverse skills and potential, craving growth and learning. Our responsibility is to unlock this potential and ignite their development, horizontally.

I detail these suggestions in my next book, Work-Life Bloom: How to Nurture a Team That Flourishes—pre-order it here.

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Dan Pontefract is the founder and CEO of The Pontefract Group, a firm that improves the state of leadership and organizational culture. He is the bestselling author of three books: Open to Think, The Purpose Effect, and Flat Army. A renowned speaker, Dan has presented at four different TED events and also writes for Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and The Huffington Post. Dan is an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria, Gustavson School of Business and has garnered more than 20 industry awards over his career. Previously as Chief Envisioner and Chief Learning Officer at TELUS—a Canadian telecommunications company with revenues of $14 billion and 50,000 global employees—he launched the Transformation Office, the TELUS MBA, and the TELUS Leadership Philosophy, all award-winning initiatives that dramatically helped to increase the company’s employee engagement to record levels of nearly 90 percent. Prior to TELUS he held senior roles at SAP, Business Objects, and BCIT. Dan and his wife, Denise, have three children (aka goats) and live in Victoria, Canada.

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