At 39, Susan Swenson exemplifies the fast track at its best.
Eight years ago, Swenson was new to management and new to what was then Pacific Telephone Co. Tiring of the clerical work that she had done elsewhere for seven years, Swenson hired on as the supervisor of six telephone service representatives, a job that placed her squarely on the company's lowest management rung.
Five corporate rungs later, Swenson now oversees 13,000 employees as the vice president in charge of consumer marketing for Pacific Telesis, the parent company of Pacific Bell.
Hers is one of the fastest climbs up the corporate ladder in Bell System history--an achievement that almost certainly would not have been possible but for the company's unusual fast track program for promising young managers.
By dispatching 50 budding managers every year to the company's fast track--formally called the Accelerated Management Program--"we are trying to create a source pool to build middle managers," said Les Schroeder, the program's manager of human resources. Swenson, he said, "is one of AMP's great success stories."
She is also one of a new breed of fast trackers beginning to emerge in large U.S. corporations.
As American business continues the painful metamorphosis that has trimmed management layers and the jobs of hundreds of thousands of workers this decade, many corporations have begun resurrecting the concept of planned management succession as a way of melding the newly slimmed down corporations with a new generation of workers.
"Companies are downsizing and streamlining and shifting their focus at the same time the bulge of baby boomers in the 25 to 45 age range has hit the mid-career stage," observed Jerrold Bratkovich, a senior vice president at Hay Group and general manager of the consulting firm's Southern California office. "Therefore, large organizations are faced with the issue of how to get the right people into the right jobs and how to take the best talent and move it through this logjam."
"Unless you are in a business where any warm body will do, you've got to start worrying about the best 20% of the work force, and that means surfacing the best and brightest and nurturing them," Bratkovich said.
Fast tracking was loudly trumpeted during the 1970s, too. But most executive grooming programs were abandoned when it became obvious that they were largely cosmetic or that they were limited to an informal mentoring system.
Employees in one large Midwestern company used to grumble that "fast track" was a euphemism for having attended Purdue, their chairman's alma mater.
Even though it is a rare chief executive who would say that his most important job is anything other than grooming a successor for himself, "the old fast track was more rhetoric than reality," Bratkovich said, "and a lot of it was just happenstance. If someone came along and started doing great things, someone else would start mentoring them and that was considered the fast track."
He has much higher hopes for the next generation of fast trackers because of a dramatic shift in the motives behind such programs.
"Companies used to talk about designing career paths for the benefit of their employees" and the projects eventually derailed, Bratkovich said. "Now that they are coming out of a crisis and are beginning to recognize that career development is critical to the survival of the company, there will be more incentive to make them work."
The crisis that is hatching a new generation of fast track programs is also changing the old rules about prospective fast trackers.
When James E. Rosenbaum, a Northwestern University sociology professor, studied the personnel records of nearly 15,000 employees recently, he discovered that "chances for promotion decline precipitously after age 35 and virtually disappear by 45."
But his study ended in 1978. Since then, other research suggests, companies have started turning to older and more seasoned executives.
Eugene E. Jennings, a business professor at Michigan State University, says that his research shows that the average age of chief executives was 49 from 1981 to 1985, two years older than during the previous decade.
Although management consultants say that most large companies have formal fast track programs on the drawing boards, few are actually ready to go--and may not be until the close of the decade.
There are some notable exceptions. General Electric, Exxon and International Business Machines have been rigorously identifying and nurturing promising talent for decades in widely copied career advancement programs. As a tribute to their success, it is rare to find any of the three going outside the company to fill an executive slot.
Although each program has its own characteristics--and both GE and IBM have several fast tracks--promising young managers usually are identified early and moved along a track more akin to a maze than a smooth path.