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Career Myth - the Myth of the Ladder

9 May 2018

This myth is the Myth of the Ladder.  This myth says that no matter what you are doing in your career, and no matter how content and happy you currently are, you should be looking to advance to a position of greater power, influence and pay. You should climb the ladder.

Compounding this myth are the financial and status rewards that come with ladder climbing.  Most people though don’t do a true cost/benefit analysis on the situation. They combine the pervasive Myth of the Ladder with the allure of more power and more money then fail to consider the emotional, relational and physical costs of moving up that next step on the ladder.  Hedonic adaptation then kicks in and people can start to get stuck ladder climbing.

Climbing the ladder often means doing less technical work and more people and resource management work.  For many people the enjoyment in their career is the technical/operational work and while they may not mind managing people it doesn’t actually hold their interest and curiosity, or engage them in deep ongoing learning.  In many cases well meaning people will urge the best technical/operational people to move into management, just because this is what you ‘should’ do.  This results in organisations full of managers who are not ‘technically’ good at people management.  And organisations suffer when they have people managers who don’t do people management well and for the right reasons.  Organisations need people moving into people management because they are super engaged with doing it well and learning deeply about what helps people be motivated.

A really dark side of this myth occurs with people who are in roles they don’t care about.  The danger is that these individuals, instead of pivoting into areas they can care about, move into management in the hope leadership will ease their sense of displacement.  All this results in is managers who feel out of their depth leading work they don’t really care about.  This is not a good recipe for a thriving organisation or a flourishing career.

The insidious thing about this myth is that it implies that becoming more skilled and proficient at what you do, or diving deeper and becoming a subject matter expert is not enough.  Instead the ‘right’ career path is one of moving to higher and higher positions.  Advancement becomes the central organising structure of career.  Yet advancement is only one theme you could build your career around, and it is a shaky one at that.  Consider some other organising themes such as:

  • Craftsmanship and ongoing learning in what you do
  • A sense of Meaning
  • Connection with those around you
  • Expression of core talents and strengths
  • Creativity, innovation, and new ideas

Leadership is a wonderful career when consciously chosen.  When it is chosen to be a pathway in which you build career capital, develop deep craftsmanship skills doing, use for the consistent betterment of those around you and care about doing well.

There is an antidote to falling into the Myth of the Ladder.  It is to be conscious, as you develop skills and expertise in your career, about actively continuing to stretch the amount of challenge you experience.  Fail to actively develop your skills in service of new challenges and you face the danger of becoming bored, at which time you might start to look at the ladder and see moving into people management as the only option.  

How much do you think the Myth of the Ladder is impacting your career thinking?

As always wishing you a flourishing career.


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