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From Career Ladder to Career Laboratory

From Career Ladder to Career Laboratory

The idea of a career ladder is out of date and is damaging our businesses.  With growing uncertainty in the world of work we are limiting our people and our organisations by seeing careers as being about steps and rungs. 

It no longer works for a number of reasons.  Firstly, with the flatter shape of modern organisations the space between the rungs has grown – and some of our clients have referred to the gaps between levels as ‘chasms’ rather than steps.  This makes it far more difficult to take a traditional step by step approach to building a career as roles rarely provide the experience, network and exposure to prepare for the next level up.  This in turn brings huge frustration for workers.  Many of them still expect their career to develop up the ladder one rung at a time, with sometimes a sense of entitlement, but that route up is becoming rarer and rarer.  The result? Turnover, disengagement and low scores on the ‘career development’ section for most internal surveys.  Secondly, the needs of our business are changing in unpredictable ways.  If our people have only known one function within the business they are ill prepared to flex and adapt as the business changes.  What we need to be developing is an agile workforce with wide networks and broad experiences who can learn quickly and drive forward in volatile times.

It’s time to promote a new way to consider career and we propose the metaphor of a career laboratory.   A laboratory is a dynamic place where you can conduct experiments which will result in learning.  Some of this will be structured but equally important to embrace is the unstructured, chance findings – as the pharmaceutical industry knows, this serendipitous learning can lead to the greatest insights.  Compared with the ladder this creates a fundamentally different focus to thinking about career planning and career success.  Instead of a step by step assent, it’s about being curious, building diverse experiences, knowledge and skills, learning as much as you can from your current role.  This in turn will help some to be ready for the next rung of the ladder, and for others it will give them the opportunity to continue to grow within role.  This approach builds two fundamental dimensions of capability:

  • Breadth of experience– first hand understanding of how the business fits together, appreciation of different pressure points and opportunities – and the network to help address complex emerging issues
  • Learn-ability – the capacity to deal with the unexpected, the novel and to see the bigger picture, focusing on what’s important in the noise – an essential skill for volatile times.

So how could this work?  Let me tell you about John and Andy.  Both worked in the same organisation in sales – and both were thirsty to get to the top and become the Sales Director – hoping to prove themselves before moving to a larger group role.  John had a traditional view.  Get to grips with your area, deliver the numbers, keep focused and prove yourself.  He was driven, always hit targets, invested in coaching his team so they also hit numbers and over 5 years he made it to head up the sales for one division.  Andy took a different view.  He saw an opportunity for a secondment to a business wide project and thought it looked interesting – so he spent 6 months working alongside finance, marketing and IT implementing a new system.  He enjoyed it and learnt a lot about the business.  A secondment to supply chain then came up to cover maternity leave.  He took that too – he found out first-hand the headaches and business cost that sales caused the supply chain team through their poor forecasting and resolved to get it sorted – so he went to see the Sales Director and suggested some new processes.  These processes saved the business over a £1m.  After this career ‘experiment’ he went back to sales, and a couple of years after John, he too was, heading up the sales of one division.  A year later the sales director role became vacant.  I’m sure most of us would say that Andy was best prepared – but John was incensed – hadn’t he done everything right? 

In this changing world of globalisation and digitalisation successful people have broader experiences.  As leaders we need to help people to get this message so they can take smart decisions in developing their career.  Changing the metaphor from ladder to laboratory is a great place to start.  How can you do this?  Why not try these steps:

  • Make the deal clear– be clear that the expectation is for people to move around the laboratory - there is no route climbing straight up the ladder! Show how people can use the laboratory metaphor to build the skills, knowledge and experience that the business needs.  Find examples from your business that illustrate the difference (your own John and Andy stories) so people can relate to what it means.
  • Make it easy to experiment – help people to find out about experiment opportunities for sideways moves, secondments and project work.  Set up agile teams looking at different business issues and encourage networks where people can share ideas and get involved – all whilst staying in their current role.
  • Celebrate discovery – when people get promoted there is often some form of public congratulations.  If we want to encourage our people to value a career laboratory we need to promote and celebrate those who embrace this way of doing things – encourage diverse experiences and learn-ability. 

It takes time to change the metaphor – but we need to do it.  The ladder has had its day, let’s get to work in the laboratory.


Comments on this Post

Terry Priestley on 18th August 2016

Love the analogy of the sales guys! I had an interesting conversation with a group of people from a small, international, company whilst attending an event in Geneva whilst working for HSBC. This company's managers received a monetary reward if a team member MOVED TO A DIFFERENT ORGANISATION ALTOGETHER, so long as it was a promotion. The senior manager then received a further reward if they enticed that individual back within a two year period. The basis for the reward was this initiative grew both the experiential and the intellectual capital of the original company. How innovative!

Ron Lutaaya on 6th July 2016

Thanks Patrick, you have articulated something which many of us have been trying to find words to express. My experience as an Organisational Development professional is that focussing on training and change projects is not enough, in the long run you need to have HR experience, it does help when you are involved in a major transformation programme, in addition, it ensures you do not stagnate in middle management, you can go for Director roles to cover both HR and OD. Wish somebody had told me this years ago. Many thanks.

Maggi Evans on 6th July 2016

Thanks Patrick, glad to hear it worked well for you - and I'd love to hear more about it! Maggi

Patrick Taggart on 6th July 2016

Some years ago I was involved in an experiment with a large blue chip organisation who looked for volunteers to switch departments every two years. Although their learning curve was steep they progressed to general manager roles and the previous parochial thinking disappeared and they were better for the journey. Love the article and my experience shows it is the way forward best wishes Patrick Taggart

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