By Priscilla Claman
Reaching the apex of the career ladder by gradually getting promoted to the top is a thing of the past. From my experience as a career coach, career ladders in most organizations have not existed for at least fifteen years.
Career ladders are an artifact of the Mad Men era, when you signed onto an organization at age 21, followed the rules, were incrementally promoted, and retired with a gold watch.
But those days are long gone. Career ladders died out during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when over 85% of Fortune 1000 American companies downsized their white-collar workforce.* Downsizing has only escalated from there, however in the 80s and 90s the lost jobs were not in manufacturing but white-collar jobs, including management jobs. As companies thinned out, those leadership positions disappeared — and most haven’t come back since.
In that period at General Electric, for example, engineers hired right out of school went through a career development process which included managerial training. Over time, the company began to bulge with managers. Jack Welch laid off thousands, “de-layering,” as some people called it. With those managers gone, most “next steps” in the career ladder moved two or three rungs out of reach.
So despite their near extinction, why do we still believe in career ladders? Truthfully, intentionally or not, we are still promising traditional careers. There may not be an easy next step for every person in want of promotion. I know of a company that went through an extensive talent management process, which notified, feted, and gave “stretch assignments” to top talent. Four months later, a third of them were laid off in a reorganization.
It doesn’t help that managers are predisposed to keep the best employees in their current positions, which promotes stability in an organization. That’s one reason so many companies don’t allow people to transfer easily to other jobs without their managers’ permission.
There are better ways to think about career moves. Try these tips for diverting your attention from the next step up.
Look laterally for career moves. Don’t think of job descriptions as much as job families, or groups of jobs that have something in common. For example if you are a financial analyst, consider other analyst positions in your company, perhaps in market research or sales. It’s easier to move within a company where you are a known factor. Horizontal experience can also broaden your skills, which improves your chances of moving up.
Prove you can handle a promotion. Volunteer to help your manager with components of her job and learn to do them well. For example, offer to help interview job candidates, train and coach new people, and give them performance feedback. Your progress should automatically make you a candidate for the next manager job.
Grow your skills to grow your job. Seek out and take advantage of opportunities when they appear, and actively exceed expectations. For example, I once worked with Heidi, a medical assistant, who was charged with scheduling training for a new technology at a major hospital. The doctors were impossible to schedule, so she learned the new systems cold and trained the doctors one-on-one. It wasn’t long before she was promoted and given the opportunity of a career in information technology.
It’s a different world. But if a world without career ladders allows you to take charge of your own career, then it is a far better one.