Boston — One way the Fortune 1000s compete for the brightest MBA graduates is to offer them a ride on the corporate ''fast track.'' Once the new employee hops on, he or she is in for a series of rapid promotions and is, in theory, on the way to a job in top management.
But overreliance on the fast track can mean problems for companies and their rising-star managers, says Paul Thompson, a professor of organizational behavior at Brigham Young University's School of Management. The fast track, he says, causes managers to focus on short-term gains, while ''what's good for the short term may not be best in the long run.''
''A manager on the fast track expects to be in a position for probably 12 to 24 months,'' reads a study that Professor Thompson and his university colleagues recently completed on the subject. ''The manager focuses on programs, products, and projects leading to dramatic results in the shortest time. If results can't be achieved in less than 24 months, a manager is reluctant to start the program because he or she will not get credit for the work.''
The study, ''Warning: the fast track may be hazardous to organizational health,'' is the result of in-depth interviews with four Fortune 500 companies and shorter interviews with eight other companies in the 500 group.
The fast-track incentive has been dangled before high-potential managers for a long time. Companies use it to lure and keep exceptional managers. By frequently switching these ''chosen'' to various departments and often different cities, the companies try to give young managers the kind of broad-based knowledge of a corporation that a senior executive needs.
''But the fast track is becoming more widespread, and time spent on each job is getting shorter,'' Mr. Thompson explained in an interview. ''When it affected fewer people and people moved every four years or so, it was not so much of a problem.''
''It's hard to get statistics on the fast-track accelerating, but I agree it's a problem,'' says John Kotter, head of the organizational behavior department at the Harvard Business School. ''If you move too fast, you may never really get a chance to learn everything that needs to be learned at each step,'' Mr. Kotter said.
''Many people . . . doubt anyone can gain an in-depth understanding of a complex job and make a major contribution in a period as short as 12 months,'' the Thompson study emphasizes. ''This problem is compounded because many of the most important positions in organizations are assigned to managers on the fast track.''
V. J. Nielson, manager of employee development at Phillips Petroleum Company, doesn't argue. Although he emphasizes that Phillips has a ''very small percentage of people on the fast track,'' he sees drawbacks in the program.
''The fast track makes it hard to identify late bloomers,'' Mr. Nielson complains. But the ''most serious detriment,'' he said, ''is that on the fast track, managers don't have to pay for their mistakes. They make decisions which make them look good then, but two years from now, when they are in another job, someone else gets the blame for what turns out to be a poor decision.''
Nielson raises another point: ''Subordinates under (mobile) managers sometimes have low morale. They recognize that the manager may not be really making a contribution.''
But Phillips has to use the fast track anyway. ''When you have a shortage of the right kind of people you still have to build up a supply of broad-based, general managers,'' Nielson said. ''And if you don't offer (a fast track), managers will go somewhere else.'' As one management consultant puts it: ''It's a corporate sin to lose a high-potential person.''
The fast track ''is a mixed blessing'' for the manager speeding through it, explains Thompson. On the one hand, the manager is excited about being on the way to the top - more responsibilities, more money. On the other, ''he's afraid of burnout'' - being worn out by job pressure.
Thompson maintains that upward-moving managers and senior-level management are caught in a revolving door. Senior level offers a manager the fast track as a signal that he is performing well - and ''out of fear of losing him,'' he says. The manager has to accept because if he didn't, ''it would look like he had no interest in advancement.''
But there is a way out of this circle, Thompson believes. In the study, he puts forth some solutions:
* Slowing the track. This can be done, Thompson says, only if the manager gets more feedback as to how he's doing and where he's headed. Otherwise, he will take the lack of movement to mean that he's no longer in the running for top management.
Thompson also says that the recession and the blooming of the baby-boomers make this a good time to start slowing the speed of mobility.
* Hefty jobs need more attention. Some of the most important jobs now have the highest turnover. Professor Thompson says senior executives should identify jobs that require continuity and tell their managers to expect to stay in those positions for four or five years. It should be clear that a job done well over the long term can further a career as much as, if not more than, snazzy performance in the short term.
* Continuity in projects, if not in jobs. Thompson argues that while it may not be possible to keep a person in one position for a long time, keeping him or her on one project for several years may work well. While his titles and responsibilities may change, the project's continuity and quality will improve.