Career Progression: Is the Only Way Up?
Career progression, the process of moving forward within your working life, traditionally implied vertical growth to higher-level positions. For example, you would start as a trainee at a company’s PR department, then be promoted to assistant PR manager, and finally become Director of Communications. Although there’s nothing wrong with this particular career framework, many organizations today recognize that there are numerous career pathways employees can follow to reach their professional goals, resulting in higher job satisfaction and a happier workforce. Is the career ladder a thing of the past?
- Intro: Climbing the Corporate Ladder
- The Times They Are A-Changin’
- The Career Ladder vs the Rope Swing
- Misunderstandings about Successful Career Planning
Climbing the Corporate Ladder
For a long time, it was believed that the ultimate way to build a successful career was to slowly but steadily climb up the corporate ladder. You choose a company, a trade, or a profession, started at the bottom of the ladder, and by working hard every so often you would get promoted to the next career step until you made it to director or VP. The more effort and energy you put in, the quicker you would reach the top, and the more power, benefits, and money would flow your way. Not to mention the status that came with that impressive job title: it would skyrocket to galactic proportions. Everybody would respect you because just look at that A-class car, that cool apartment in the city and that fabulous designer wardrobe will you? You made it!
Just to be clear: some people are perfectly happy with this form of career progression, and the perks that come with making it to the top can be quite amazing – not to mention your chances for professional growth. However, others don’t feel fulfilled once they’re climbing the stairs and start asking themselves questions. “Why do I feel overwhelmed all the time?” “Do I really want to be a manager?” Or more philosophically: “is this career path fulfilling my personal purpose? Do I still feel comfortable with the ethics of this company?” If at a certain point you decided you no longer wanted to be an account manager or a banker, but rather ‘do something with animals’ or follow your passion to become a photographer, not that long ago that would be frowned upon. Why? Because once you’re on the career ladder, the general opinion would be that you had to push upwards – not to deviate from the path, stand still, or worse: take a step back. Just keep on climbing. Even if you’re afraid of heights. Even if you don’t like the view once you got there.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Luckily, times have changed. The traditional focus on ‘bigger, better, higher’ has shifted. The adagium ‘work hard, play hard’ has been replaced by the now commonly accepted term ‘work smarter, not harder’. It implies that career advancement is not about putting in long hours and striving for perfection in an unhealthy way, it’s about optimizing the way you work to get the best results. Countless research has shown that working smarter improves productivity, creativity and motivation and leads to higher levels of job satisfaction. Ultimately, people will perform better – and at the end of the day, this may lead to the next level in their careers as their work ethic will be noticed and appreciated by their managers. For instance, with a promotion, a pay rise, or with the opportunity to further develop their leadership skills or craftsmanship.
In itself, this insight is not new. Successful authors like Charles Dickens and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had a relatively short but efficient working schedule where they wrote for five hours a day or less – and look where it got them. But recently, the anti-workaholism movement seems to be growing faster. As employees increasingly suffered from work-related stress and burnout this last decade, younger generations entered the workforce and the dislocating effects of the pandemic kicked in (including blurred boundaries between work and life), people realized that there’s more to life than making it to the top, and all the potential pressure that comes with it. Work hard, be promoted, and then become happy? Not so much. A great work-life balance? Yes please.
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The Career ladder vs the Rope Swing
As our views change on what it means to have a successful career, some might argue that the traditional career ladder is officially broken. Many young professionals are no longer interested in climbing those steps just for the sake of it. Instead of focusing on a job for life, they understand that it is more important to continually develop new skills, build meaningful connections at work, and live a happy and healthy life. Their identity is not based on their job title and status, but on how well their job suits their personal values and interests. They are still willing to work hard and actively seek opportunities for growth, but not necessarily in a linear way. The good news? Today, drawing your career map has become much more fun, as it can be full of discovery and adventure. Just like a rope swing, you can go up, down, forwards, backward, and sideways – whatever direction you choose to find your professional purpose. You can take a break and invest time in personal development, for example by traveling or starting a study to become an even better expert in your field. You can also swing to an entirely different rope, and make a career switch to a company, industry, or function that allows you to be challenged and explore what truly is important to you in your working life.
If you manage to discover rope swings, you may actually find yourself in unfamiliar territory. This may be daunting but to be honest, it’s part of an adventure. An adventure you can’t really have with a ladder because a ladder needs to stay grounded.
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Misunderstandings about Successful Career Planning
We are lucky to live in a time when you can change your route if you’re not happy where you are. This doesn’t mean you cannot follow a linear career path in one field, and it also doesn’t mean this is a typical thing for the younger generations. So in order to avoid any misunderstandings:
- There are indeed a lot of people who have all three of the following characteristics: they work hard, they are successful AND they are happy. They are perfectly content with the industry or company they chose when they were still juniors. The key is that they don’t waste their time doing things they dislike at an organization that doesn’t fit them, but they feel truly motivated, get a sense of purpose out of their work, and often have meaningful relationships at work
- There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of ambition. It’s actually one of the drivers of successful leadership. But ambition is not about money or status, it’s about wanting to make a difference and to have a profound impact. Successful leaders of today know that it’s not about them rising to the top, it’s about empowering their people to become the best version of their professional selves
- Chasing a healthy work-life balance is not exclusively part of the ‘Gen-Z or millennial mindset’. Baby boomers have been known to make radical career changes. The difference is, in the past, it would be called a midlife crisis. Today, it’s considered a midlife breakthrough.
Every person has a different and unique path to follow. Both in their lives and in their careers. There is no blueprint and no ideal steps you can take, there is no right and wrong way. So in that sense, the question is not if the traditional career ladder is broken. As some people have very deliberate, well-planned ideas about moving up, the linear path is still a way to get there – just as long as it is done carefully and healthily. On the other hand, our views on having a successful career path have changed: the way many people and companies look at career progression has become more out of the box, with plenty of options for movement, freedom, and yes – also enough room for adventure.
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