No More 'Climbing the Corporate Ladder'; It's Time to 'Traverse the Uneven Terrain' of Today's Economy


In the first article of this series, we discussed the need to unlearn the idea that there is something wrong with you if you have short job tenure. We also discussed the need to unlearn the idea that "winners" don't need to hustle for their next jobs – that recruiters will always be calling them, and if they fail to call you, then you are a "loser."

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Today, we'll discuss another popular career concept that needs to be unlearned: the idea of "climbing the corporate ladder."

Climbing Corporate Ladders

One pervasive component of early-to-mid-twentieth-century thinking about careers was the concept of "climbing the corporate ladder of success." This framework used the corporation or institution as the economic foundation of upward mobility. In this context, "success" meant ever-increasing levels of job titles, salaries, and responsibilities within the same organization.

This ladder-climbing framework may continue to be viable for large companies and institutions with sophisticated approaches to management development, but how many of those organizations still exist? What is the probability that you will work for one of them?

Most of the people whose career campaigns we manage will end up working for smaller companies with espoused philosophies that "people are our most important product" – yet these companies will also conduct themselves according to a "just in time" approach to leadership succession.

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Rather than paying the cost of in-house leadership development, the company will decide it wants someone who can "hit the ground running" when an important leadership role opens up. The company will find this person by employing retained search firms to source the most qualified candidates both inside and outside the company.

The higher up the organizational ladder an open role is, the higher the bias in favor of hiring outside the company. Given the drive for "doing more with less," in-house employees are struggling to simply perform the jobs they were hired to do. They lack the time – and the company does not provide them with the resources – to demonstrate fitness for higher-level jobs.

The Devil You Know Is at a Disadvantage

Under these circumstances, promoting in-house candidates to higher management roles can sometimes be perceived as being as much a leap of faith as hiring an outside person is.

Consider the popular term "the Peter principle," which refers to the idea that "managers rise to the level of their incompetence" because people are hired for new roles based on their competence in their current roles – not their competence in the new role.

It would be an error to assume that the best sales professional in the company will be the best sales manager. It would be an error to assume that a baseball team's best pitcher will be the best coach. As one ascends the corporate ladder, jobs increase in responsibility – but they also require different skill sets. Thus, when hiring an internal candidate for a leadership or management position, a company runs the risk of enacting the Peter principle.

Another problem for internal candidates is that it is riskier for hiring authorities to promote internal candidates than it is for them to hire external candidates. The popular cliche is that "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know." That cliche breaks down in the hiring process.

Finding out the devil you didn't know has problems opens the hiring authority to accusations of making bad decisions under conditions of incomplete information. Finding out the devil you know has problems opens the hiring authority to accusations of making bad decisions under conditions of complete information: "You knew they came with baggage, and you hired them anyway???!!!"

From 'Ladder Climbing' to 'Traversing'

The 50 successful people we interviewed for this series of articles did not think in terms of "ladders." They thought in terms of "traversing."

The skiing term "traversing" means moving in a zigzag pattern along different snow terrain. During an alpine ski run, you may traverse over ice patches, powder snow, or moguls (snow mounds).

Moving up a ladder requires steady discipline and persistence in the face of obstacles. Traversing requires discipline combined with maneuverability.

Schools are excellent at educating students about discipline and persistence in the face of obstacle. From kindergarten to doctoral programs, one must pass through a hierarchy of required courses to pass on to the next hierarchy of required courses. Running through the educational system's gauntlet is a demonstration of intelligence, discipline, and persistence.

All of this means that traditional schools are excellent at teaching students how to climb ladders that will not exist for them once they graduate. The key skill professionals need in today's assignment-based economy is not ladder-climbing, but the agility of traversing.

Back to the Case of Jack

In the previous article, we discussed the case of Jack:

"Jack needed to understand and accept that his career may have begun as an employee, but it would most certainly end as a consultant. Jack's career would not be a single career comprising a series of corporate jobs. It would be more like managing two professional lives, one focused on employment assignments and the other focused on project assignments."

This is what we call 'traversing' as opposed to managing one single career. This new model involves zigzagging between full-time and project work, moving from W-2 to 1099 and back to W-2.

In the next and final article of this series, we'll explore the three main lessons we learned from our survey of 50 successful professionals: traverse with your career edge, master affiliation needs, and traverse between provincial and cosmopolitan knowledge.

Maryanne Peabody and Larry Stybel are cofounders of Stybel Peabody, an Arbora Global Company. This article is adapted from their book, Navigating the Waterfall: Your Guide to Job Search and Career Management.