Boosting careers is not about corporate ladders or organizational charts; it's about paying attention to how people can grow in the jobs they already have

Chances are, Prospect Associates Ltd. won't ever offer Drew Melton a corner office and his pick of the company art collection; he started out as a copy-machine operator three years ago, and that's exactly what he is today.

A dead-end job? In a different company, maybe. Two weeks after he was hired at the Rockville, Md., health-communications-policy consultancy, Melton went to its president, Laura Henderson, and told her how he could run document production better and faster. "I think in terms of efficiency," says Melton. So does Henderson, who gave Melton carte blanche to do things his way. "They're listening to my ideas, and that's where I'm making changes and contributing to the company," says Melton. Today he runs a virtual Xerox fiefdom, dispensing advice to Prospect's harried consultants, who rely on his painstaking attention to detail to give their proposals a professional look.

Has Melton advanced? You bet. He hasn't climbed a corporate ladder, but he has increased his contribution to the company by honing his skills and expanding the scope of his job. His salary has increased by more than 40%, he's respected by the company's professional staff, and there's no pressure on him to "move up."

Melton's experience reflects a growing trend in the restructuring of corporate hierarchies. Flatter organizational structures now open up many more horizontal career paths. At big companies, that restructuring often occurs because of downsizing. But at companies like Prospect, creating career paths for the Drew Meltons of the world just makes good sense. "A lot of people love what they do," notes Henderson. "And upward mobility in the traditional sense is sometimes not the way to go."

Like most "best company" CEOs, Henderson took into account the nature of her business and the needs of her employees and created a system of "advancement" that makes sense for both. As a player in the highly competitive government-consulting business, Prospect relies on all employees not only to generate ideas but to market them, too. Marisa Arbona, for example, has been given the freedom to parlay her special interest -- communications about Native American health issues -- into new business for Prospect, something she wasn't allowed to do by her former employer. "As long as I can present my ideas and make them work, I don't think there are any limitations for me here," says Arbona, who won a National Cancer Institute Recognition Award last year. "That was very fulfilling," she says. "It wouldn't have come if I hadn't been working at Prospect."

Just as it does at Prospect, employee advancement plays a major role in the overall growth strategy at Fitcorp Inc., in Boston, where 80% of all employees started out as student interns and 13 of the company's 14 center directors are homegrown. Take Janet Barros, who's been with Fitcorp only four years and has progressed from exercise-physiologist intern to program supervisor to center director to district manager. Two years ago CEO Gary Klencheski asked her to open a new on-site fitness center at nearby Ziff Publishing Corp. "They could have chosen someone who had experience doing that," said Barros, who was only 25 at the time. "Instead, they took a chance on me." It paid off. Last year Ziff won a merit award from the Association for Worksite Health Promotion, based on the program Barros created.

But Klencheski and his management team realize that not all exercise physiologists want to be (or will succeed as) managers, so they've added a career track that allows employees to stay on the business's program side and still get ahead. Case in point: senior exercise physiologist John Furey, who has been with Fitcorp for five years and professes no desire to go into management, has expanded his role to include advising the industry's trade association; he also conducts health seminars at corporations.

Nowhere are the opportunities for advancement as dramatic as in fast-growing companies. "There's no ladder to climb," says Jon Goodman, director of the Entrepreneur Program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "They're building the ladder as they grow." So the challenge is to hire the kinds of employees that will help build the ladder. "You don't want to advance -- you want to enlarge," adds Goodman. "Your technical skills become greater; you build your rÉsumÉ in terms of span of control and responsibility."

Such is the case at Stonyfield Farm Inc., in Londonderry, N.H., which has seen annual sales growth average over 60% for the past three years. "A year ago we had 9 supervisors," says Stonyfield CEO Gary Hirshberg. "Now we have 22, and only 3 of those were new hires." In other words, 10 Stonyfield employees have been promoted to supervisor level. That's what happened to former limo driver Edward Souza, who knew nothing about the dairy business when he applied for a job at Stonyfield, five years ago. "But they emphasized that there was plenty of room to advance for people willing to learn as much as they could," he says. Souza started as a yogurt checker but soon learned how to clean equipment and process milk. A year later he became head processor, and six months after that he was promoted to production supervisor and then to production manager. Souza, who now supervises 40 people, has helped grow production capacity from 9,000 to 60,000 cases a week in only three and a half years.

Ann Machado, CEO of Creative Staffing Inc., in Miami, also has created an environment where fast promotions are more the rule than the exception. Her first employee, Theresa Bender, is now an area manager; her original bookkeeper, Ana Barton, is chief financial officer; and all but one of the company's top seven managers started as entry-level employees. That didn't happen by accident. Machado deliberately hired people with "a lot of education" or experience in the temporary-placement industry. "I hire one or two levels up from the position I have available at the time," says Machado. "If I can't look at people and say, 'Awesome!' I don't hire them." Her intention is to home-grow her managers and, by giving them extensive training, prepare them to take the company to $15 million to $20 million within three years.

But no one can beat Lisa Porter when it comes to long-term career tracks. Porter was a college student when she started at St. Louis's Phoenix Textile Corp., five years ago, as a temporary worker. She's now being groomed to be vice-president of finance -- 15 years down the road. "Everybody here has a career track," says CEO Pam Reynolds. "We hire people with the expectation that they will retire with the company." As at other great small companies to work for, hiring at Phoenix is rigorous; Reynolds values active, bright minds more than educational credentials, and quizzes interviewees about their short- and long-term career goals. Porter recalls being coaxed persistently into thinking about her plans. "So I said I'd like to be vice-president of finance someday, and they said, 'OK, here's what you have to do.' I feel the only thing you're limited by here is your own ambition," she says.

But even at Phoenix, which, says Reynolds, "has a very structured system where people have specific jobs," there is plenty of room for "horizontal" advancement. Kim Roussin, for example, ran Phoenix's data-processing division for several years before she finally concluded that she wouldn't succeed if she stayed in that position. Roussin expressed an interest in sales, so the company moved her into sales support. "That might sound like a demotion, but to me it was a different form of advancing," she says.

David Kelley would agree. In fact, he founded IDEO Product Development, in Palo Alto, Calif., on that principle. "I set out to make a company that was a great place for my friends to work," says Kelley. He had worked for big companies, but, he says, they took the spark out of his life. So he decided to start his own product-design company, eschewing the hierarchy he so disdained. At IDEO, no one has a title, or a "boss," for that matter. Designers form teams around specific projects; each of those teams has a leader whose authority lasts only as long as the project, so today's manager may be tomorrow's subordinate.

So what's the measure of success in such an unstructured environment? "We're talking about climbing the self-fulfillment ladder," says Kelley. "For some employees here, self-fulfillment comes from how technical they are. For others, it means climbing a ladder based on how big a proj-ect you run, or how many you can run." Employees get a fix on their progress with regular peer reviews. They select their own reviewers; most choose someone who they know is especially critical, because that person's praise is valued more.

IDEO's staffers are the first to admit that their structure -- or lack thereof -- doesn't work for everyone. "A lot of people screen themselves out during the interview process," says Tom Kelley, who heads up marketing at his brother's company. "If you hire the right people -- if you've got the right fit -- then everything will take care of itself." That could be an axiom for any of the great companies to work for.


Creative Staffing


Temporary-placement agency

30 employees, $9.2 million in sales

Home-grows managers. Hires for one or two levels up from the position available at the time of recruitment, so the employee can help drive the company's growth.



Fitness-center operator

80 employees, $5.8 million in sales

Offers a parallel-track career path for staffers who wish to build skills but don't want to move into management.

Ideo Product Development

Palo Alto, Calif.

High-tech-products designer

130 employees, $16 million in sales

Allows career changes and short-term team leadership within a matrix-style organization. Peer reviews gauge individuals' progress; employees choose their own reviewers.

Phoenix Textile

St. Louis

Linen distributor

94 employees, $35 million in sales

Maps out career tracks up to 15 years in advance with the expectation that new hires will retire with the company. Hires rigorously, emphasizing bright minds over educational credentials.

Prospect Associates

Rockville, Md.

Health-communications-policy consultancy

150 employees, $11.2 million in sales

Relies on staff members to market their own ideas by developing personal interests that can create new business. Encourages lateral job growth if beneficial to employee and company.

Stonyfield Farm

Londonderry, N.H.

Yogurt manufacturer

87 employees, $12 million in sales

Clearly communicates career-growth opportunities to all employees. Promotes competent learners.