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Step off the Career Ladder - there's a Better Way

Step off the Career Ladder - there's a Better Way

Career Ladder Story: Must have the Title

A couple of years ago I was hiring an emerging leader from a well-known firm to lead a new and highly visible Operations Team. She was a referral candidate leading a similar team as a Manager. “Cindy” (not her real name) had a well-aligned work history, strong knowledge of the industry and most importantly knew essential functions of the team. We were all set to hire her but ran into an issue - her Career Ladder.

Cindy was deeply frustrated when the offer came in - with a Senior Manager title versus coming in as a Director.

She stated several times that this would “set my career back” and she wanted a title that “matched her skills and experience.” The challenge - they didn’t.

Cindy had only been a manager for a little over a year and was expecting a significant jump in her title. Her rationale: she had been a manager in a large company, and that would translate to a director in a smaller one.

But she stated several times that her principal reason for leaving was career advancement. Cindy didn't see a fast progression in her company and felt the only way to continue her career climb was to leave.

Even though this was a flag, her referral was high on her. Cindy also gave us a lot of information about how she could improve the team, and it’s critical functions.

We wanted her and made sure her compensation was substantial, but we dug in on the title; the leaders were not going to adjust it. We agreed to cooperatively build a career plan to move her to that level, ideally within a year.

Cindy accepted the offer, but there wasn’t the energy I felt when we first spoke. She seemed to accept it with reluctance, but came in and started moving the team forward. She and I had coaching sessions once or twice a month for coaching, and she would remark how incompetent leadership was - and nothing was improving.

It didn't help the company’s revenue was a roller coaster, which put constraints on her plans. But the transition from a large corporation to smaller start-up was tougher than she accepted. Cindy tried to hang with it, but within six months Cindy resigned and rejoined her previous company.

Career Ladder Story: Climbing the Ladder to Burnout

“Sam” (not his real name) was on a fast track in a Software as a Service (SaaS) tech company Initially a support engineer; he learned the systems faster than most. He was articulate and combined with his knowledge of systems; he was a great resource for sales, marketing, and customers. His life was a string of calls and emails.

Leadership liked Sam’s work; he was responsible for a lot of big sales. With other changes, Sam promoted up to a Director role over a group he had never managed. Sam felt he was ready and ambitious - what could go wrong?

In fact, a lot. The marketplace was evolving quickly, and major companies were expanding their offerings. Customers had more choices and sales volume and revenue were dropping. The pressure on Sam and his team grew. He owned a large revenue number with no direct experience in leading a team.

Sam was a successful individual contributor who was asked to move up quickly. Right from the start, Sam struggled to balance operational tasks from strategic work. Also, he hadn't led a team like this and had to learn all this at once. Leadership tried to help, but it was a time of large change, so there wasn’t enough support. The pressure piled up.

He mentioned a few times this was something he had to do. Sam saw this as a significant step up in his career, particularly since he didn’t have a college degree.

In subsequent months you could see the stress affecting Sam. He was perpetually impatient and overloaded. He wasn't failing, but it took all his energy to keep results at status quo.

At the end of his first year, Sam was exhausted, sharing he was completely burned out. Sam decided to resign and take a sabbatical. He planned to step away and reassess where to direct his career, knowing that he was open to “going back” to an individual contributor role.

Climbing off the Career Ladder

Sam and Cindy were smart, successful people who “fell off” the Career Ladder. Their experiences are good examples why this old belief needs removal from everyone’s career planning playbook.

They are not alone. I've worked with many coaching clients struggling with frustration, guilt, and burn out because their career trajectory doesn't match this poorly thought out approach.

The Ladder Model gets you in trouble right away, because the premise is short sighted. Think about a ladder - you can only take three actions on it:

  1. Go Up

  2. Stay in Place

  3. Go Down

The problems start with the Ladder being linear and only going one direction. But life isn’t linear, and the career ladder doesn’t account for change and transition.

If you subscribe to the Career Ladder Model, two of the three actions are negative. There is only one positive direction - up. According to the Career Model, If you stay in place - you are failing. If you move backward, you are failing. In short, the Career Ladder sets you up for failure.

Cathy Benko, Vice Chairwoman and Chief Talent Officer for Deloitte L.L.P. and co-author of “Mass Career Customization.” stated this well:

"When it comes to how careers are planned, many of us still have a mental image of the corporate ladder. It has a series of rungs that employees climb as they gain more authority in an organization. The ladder model has been the gold standard of personal success since organizational hierarchy was invented."

"But organizational hierarchy isn’t what it used to be. That is because, in two short generations, the face of the corporate work force has been transformed, partly by the presence of more women and aging baby boomers in the work force, the arrival of Generation Y and workers’ changing attitudes."

All the factors Benko describes are key reasons why it’s time to hop off the Career Ladder. Which leads to an important question, what should we use as a Career Model? Enter the Career Lattice.

Most gardens feature at least one lattice. They add richness, depth, and beauty to any space. They don’t grow overnight but over time often dwarf the other plants in the garden. The plants growing on the lattice don’t grow straight up - they sometimes curve downward, run parallel, but ultimately grow tall. You also see lattice grown plants typically deeper and thicker than others surrounding them.

The new model is a Career Lattice.

An excellent example of a Career Lattice choice is a client of mine who wanted to move from Sales to Marketing, where she’d been very successful. My client had a clear picture of her progression, including how she wanted her career move to compliment her personal life.

As we worked together, she got a firm offer with a leading company in her industry space, one of her top choices. They had a strong leadership development program, and she was accepted. There were some strong caveats. The biggest was salary - it would be lower for several years. Taking a pay cut after just finishing an MBA would be tough, not to mention “starting over” career wise.

But my client saw the benefit of the Training and Development - and realized this would kick start her entry into Marketing Leadership. She accepted the offer and is thriving.

If she had followed a Career Ladder, my client would have passed and would wait for the chance to take a comparable Marketing role that would match her Sales position. That might never happen. She sought out the experience and growth (briefly moving downward) to hopefully move ahead and forward in Marketing.

What are other Career Lattice moves? Benko offers these:

"..Women who step out of the work force and then step back in a few years later, Generation X-ers and Y-ers who show less loyalty to a single company, executive men who have climbed the ladder for decades and now insist on carving out more family time as they continue to work."

I would add:

  • Pursuing additional education either a full degree or specific certifications. This could mean slowing down career responsibilities while finishing the program.

  • Stepping out of the work force to focus on family as a parent or caregiver. You plan on returning, but your complete attention is on your family.

  • Moving to a new job role, knowing (as my client did) that compensation may drop in the short term.

  • Prioritizing a passion project ahead of your career and finding a realistic way to do both. This could mean taking on less job responsibility or even taking a sabbatical.

My list developed from choices my clients have made. I also have done several of these. My clients often remark how much they enjoyed these experiences. Additionally, they often find these “Career Lattice” decisions deepened their career skills and insights.

How to Build Your Career Lattice

But there are still people and groups that still filter their Career view with “Ladder Think.” If you are considering a Lattice move in your career, you may find some resistance.

There are some who find the concept foreign and change is difficult. In fact, this might describe you!

Here are six areas to help you explore Career Lattice choices.

  • Your Career Aspirations

  • Additional training or education you want to pursue to achieve your career goals

  • Career Changes that seem interesting

  • Personal Interests that you want to explore

  • Family commitments and aspirations

  • Focusing on personal health and well being

There is a lot here; Tackling this list all at once would be a large project. The purpose of this list is to ask some targeted questions as you consider them:

  • Which two or three areas feel most compelling to you?

  • Of the top compelling areas, what are reasons you feel drawn to them?

  • What would your life look like if you moved forward in your top area?

Again a lot here to consider, but this is a baseline to consider as you explore how to integrate your career and personal life. A Career Lattice model is a healthier and ultimately more rewarding way to grow your career.


If you’d like to discuss the ideas in this post or other areas where Coaching might help - I’d love to share. All initial sessions are free and we dive right in. There is never any pressure or push/

My email is

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