Are you climbing a career ladder? Or using the staircase?
After you read this title, you may be asking, what’s the difference?
Many people talk about “climbing the corporate ladder”, getting promoted from an individual contributor to a Manager, then Director, then Vice President, and onwards into the executive ranks. Many think about their career as a ladder, each step moving you higher vertically. Unfortunately, for most, it doesn’t and shouldn’t work this way.
When I climb a ladder, I am on a narrow path (literally, the width of the ladder) while being successful in business requires breath and depth as you rise higher in an organization. This is why I encourage people to think of career progression as a staircase instead of a ladder. Not only does a staircase allow a person to move up, it causes people to move laterally, either from one step to the next or more dramatically across a landing or plateau. Ever tried to pass someone or be passed when climbing a ladder? Metaphorically, a staircase also better represents the reality of corporate promotions.
Moving away from the metaphor, practically, what does the “staircase” mean for career planning? A staircase is a plan of attack for your career.
Defining your career milestones or endpoint in terms of position or title has always been a difficult task for people in the first third of their career. A different approach is defining a milestones or endpoint by the skills, competencies, and experiences you will need. For example, you may define your career next milestone or endpoint by the following:
- Leading XX teams of YYY number of people
- Having strategic versus tactical decision-making responsibility
- Responsible for a P&L of $XXX
- Focused on _______ domain(s) (eg: sales, marketing, financial, R&D, etc)
- Focused in ________ industry (High tech, Healthcare,, Manufacturing, Financial services, etc)
- Range of desired annual and long-term compensation
Or if you eschew roles in management but prefer specialization in an area of expertise, you are more likely to define your career milestones by skills and expertise developed and type of work being done as compared to peers. Your accomplishments may be measured by certifications and other external measures specific to your domain and industry, overlaid against targets for your desired annual and long term compensation and possibly external recognition of your work (eg: Patients, Publications, External awards).
Now apply the “staircase” thinking to your career plan. With every move, ask yourself whether your next move is better to move sideways to build additional foundational skills, competencies and experiences to support you in the future or whether the time is right to move vertically to a position of greater responsibility. This “long game” thinking allows you to build skills, competencies and experiences that differentiate you when you compete against others who may have taken a narrower path. It also forces diversity of thought and relationships as people move from one team or domain of expertise into others versus remaining in the narrow confines of your home turf as you climb vertically.
In his 1968 book titled “The Peter Principle”, Dr. Laurence J. Peter observed that “employees rise up through a firm’s hierarchy through promotion until they reach a level of respective incompetence.” This happens because past successes in your career are the fuel that feeds promotions until one today those successes stop being the predictor of future success.
As a person’s level and title rise within an organization, responsibilities broaden and decision-making increases in complexity. To be successful requires broader foundational skills, experiences and competencies than those developed climbing a narrow “career ladder”. For example, being the best at Sales or in the “art of selling” doesn’t adequately prepare you for complex analysis and trade-offs required to make investment decisions on where to deploy constrained resources to get the best return for revenue growth. Alternatively, being the best at finance or logistics doesn’t likely prepare you for complex decision-making involved in setting go-to-market strategies or dealing with the fickle clients or customers.
To be successful, you need breadth to support height. A triangle with a wide base can be built higher with less fear of toppling than one with a narrow base. Similarly, a career built on broad foundational skills is less likely to succumb to the Peter Principle than one built on a “career ladder”.
To accomplish your career goals, use the staircase.