Forget the Corporate Ladder – Welcome to the Climbing Wall
If there is one career cliché that is overdue for retirement it is that of the corporate ladder. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a powerful image. I like the idea of always reaching higher in my work. If we aim high, stay focused and keep climbing, we rise, right? But ladders are also narrow, unstable and unforgivingly linear. Try to step sideways on the ladder and you’re going down – with a crash.
Many of us have been toting around that ladder image like a heavy, unwieldy yardstick of our own professional worth. Every new, “bigger” job title shows us – and the world – that we’ve conquered one more rung on the ladder. When people ask us what we do for a living, we start with our job titles, further locking ourselves into that one narrow climb. Are you an assistant, a supervisor, manager, AVP, VP, SVP…? Say the title and we all form a picture of how far you’ve come or fallen.
But with each generation of candidates entering the talent pool, I’ve discovered a refreshing new view of “career success.” It’s not as single-mindedly linear as the old ladder. Instead, it’s more curiosity-based, more scenic, more exciting – and more collaborative.
Employees today, especially Millennials, refuse to confine themselves to one narrow, unidirectional career path. That shouldn’t be surprising. With increased globalization, social media collaboration and unemployment rates that give top talent virtually endless choices, the old hierarchical org charts of yesterday were bound to be disrupted. But I think that’s a healthy development for all of us. And I encourage candidates to loosen their focus on the almighty title.
In fact, resumes stacked with impressive titles don’t impress me – or my clients – much. Do I need to see the minimum required experience? Of course. But more than that, I want to get a clear picture of a person’s core strengths, soft skills, career goals, and professional motivations.
So, what should you focus on? Short answer: you.
1. Identify the aspects of your work that are most meaningful to you.
Name your accomplishments. Quantify them. But beyond that, can you name the skills, passions and talents that you leveraged to achieve them? Focus on those things. How often do you get to tap into them in your current job? What kind of job will allow you to pursue these things – and grow in the directions that are most meaningful to you? Make a list of your priorities that is specific enough to be meaningful – and short enough to be manageable.
2. Use these priorities as your career benchmarks.
Do you love mentoring other employees and happiest when you’re directing the work of others? Or are you happiest when you’re organizing and analyzing massive amounts of complex data, without getting bogged down by a lot of team interactions? Each of these are towering strengths in some jobs – but liabilities in others. You deserve to pursue the path that values what you have to offer.
3. Fill in the gaps.
Once you’ve gotten serious about the best next job for you, get real about what you’ll need to do to get there. You must be willing to develop better, stronger – or entirely new – skills. If you’re marketing director trapped in a financial analyst’s job, you’ll need to take a few steps down, to the side and up again before you get there. Take the classes. Develop the mentoring relationships. Consider the internships.
4. Brand yourself. Tell your story.
You know you can do. You know what you want and where you’re headed. Now you need to package it all up and promote yourself. Everything, everything you present about yourself to the employment world should be part of a strategically integrated, well branded marketing communications campaign. Now, when you introduce yourself, you’ll describe what you love to do, not the name of a job you’ve held. Your LinkedIn profile will reinforce that introduction. Your resume will reflect it in greater detail and your cover letters will always introduce you as the person whole skills, talents, passions and accomplishments make you the ideal fit for their organization.
As you contemplate the next move in your career, I hope you’ll liberate yourself from the lonely, competitive climb of corporate ladder. Take a breath. Survey the view. Consider where you want to be next. Moving sideways – or even a few notches down for the moment – may be the smartest move you’ll ever make. And it’s probably just the right step to get you right where you really want to go.