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24 May

Busting the myth of the career ladder.

”As you start your post-HBS career, look for opportunities, look for growth, look for impact, look for mission. Move sideways, move down, move on, move off. Build your skills, not your resume. Evaluate what you can do, not the title they’re going to give you. Do real work. Take a sales quota, a line role, an ops job. Don’t plan too much, and don’t expect a direct climb. If I had mapped out my career when I was sitting where you are, I would have missed my career.”

— Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer – Facebook

Metaphors are great for explaining complex phenomena via simple analogies. But if you aren’t careful, you can often become a slave to the metaphors you use.

“Career Ladder” is one such metaphor.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a career ladder as “the series of progressively higher positions that can be attained in one's working career toward greater responsibility and financial success.”

Even though there is nothing wrong with that definition, the analogy of a ladder subconsciously feeds us the wrong notion that the only way you should be moving in your career is up. And that a career switch would mean completely getting down from one ladder and climbing up another from the very first rung.

This misconception is the source for a lot of our hesitation while making career moves. As a person believing yourself to be on one such ladder, you feel stifled, in the same way when you’re on an actual physical ladder — where there is no space to make any lateral moves. You can either go up or down.

To be honest, this is quite detrimental to our own progress as professionals.

What if you treated your career like a jungle gym where you could make a jump up for pay, or a jump across, for experience?

Seeing your career as a jungle gym — as Sheryl Sandberg puts it — or a lattice framework, allows you to unlock a second dimension to the limiting "career ladder” metaphor.

It allows you to move away from evaluating job offers based on promotion or pay alone, but instead, evaluate them in terms of skills and experiences that would put you in a good position to have even more interesting options down the road, no matter how the economic winds shift.

Incidentally, this ties into Aditya’s piece on the Greedy Algorithm in the 100 Days of MBA series.

You may not know where each individual move is leading you when you’re making it.  These moves only make sense when you’re looking back, with the benefit of hindsight.

In a forest trek, while charting your way up, you’re only thinking about where you rest your feet next, while being cognizant of the overall direction and trajectory you’re going in over a longer distance and time horizon. Likewise, it’s really difficult to see where all the combination of skills will eventually get you while you’re getting them. It’s only when you look back that you can make sense of how every move was an important piece in your puzzle.

And this is exactly what Sandberg is trying to say:

That you shouldn’t have a concrete plan while navigating your career. And more importantly, you shouldn’t be only thinking of moves that take you up. Like in the greedy strategy, a move that looks like the most progress in the short term might eventually end up capping your growth in the long run.

Focus on doing real work. The rest will follow.

What matters is that you get good at embracing uncertainty and making moves that promise good work, without worrying too much about “moving up the ladder.” Focus on gaining skill, experience and perspective. In the long run, no one can take that from you.

You can always form a coherent narrative of your career later, with the benefit of hindsight.

Lastly, remember that great careers rarely look like career ladders but more like adventure-filled jungle gyms — where you have to make lateral moves, and sometimes, even go a step back to take two steps forward.

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