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  • Writer's pictureSarah Carter

"It's a jungle gym, not a ladder"

Climb the ladder!

In order to get to the top you've got to _______

There's nothing like the view from the top of the ladder!

Careful not to step on anyone on your way up the cooperate ladder.

How many times have you heard those phrases, and similar, during your career? Or at least as you were training for your chosen occupation? Probably dozens, I bet, I certainly did in the Navy Pilot world. The whole training and promotion structure was built around an unofficial "golden path" that very much resembled a narrowing ladder. As long as you kept to the path the rungs created, you'd continue to promote. Every now and then you'd come across someone who had deviated from that ladder for an assignment and undoubtedly the first question you'd ask is "was it worth it and do you think you'll still promote up?"

Why wasn't the first question "cool, what did you get out of that other assignment that you'll use here?" Or "what skills did you learn there that you wouldn't have learned here?" We have been conditioned to believe that there is only one way to the top of our respective ladders and, because of that, we think any other path is a risky career move at best. But is it really? Not according to trend statistics. "As of 2010, the average American had eleven jobs from the ages of eighteen to forty-six...the days of joining an organization or corporation and staying there to climb that one ladder are long gone" (pg. 53).


Sheryl Sandberg reflects briefly on her ideas of growing up in chapter four of Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead. She says "As a child, I never thought about what I wanted to BE, but I thought a lot about what I wanted to DO" (emphasis added, pg. 55). Think back on when you were in kindergarten, or at some point in elementary school, and a teacher asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up. Did you become that? I'm pretty sure I told my teacher I wanted to be a basketball star because my dad coached basketball and I thought both him and Michael Jordan were the coolest people on the planet.

At just barely 5 foot, 4 inches tall, I certainly didn't become a basketball star and my ideas of what I wanted to BE changed as I aged anyway. For a while I wanted to be a veterinarian then I wanted to be a physical education teacher then an underwater crime scene investigator (yes that really is a thing) and eventually I came upon pilot. All of these paths, if you really look at them, center on what I wanted to DO which was to help others, people or animals, in some way. My family actually loved my open minded approach to figuring out what I wanted to become. They had all lived the life of ladder climbing but they saw beauty of a more exploratory path and were willing to see how it would turn out.

Three Ideas

Young people joining the workforce today are still, to some degrees at least, being conditioned to believe in the outdated ladder metaphor. This conditioning starts as early as high school then continues through college as students flock to majors tailored to specific industries so they are prepared to graduate and start work almost immediately. Does that process actually prepare people to grow towards what they want to DO? Do these people who have exclusively climbed the ladder make the best leaders of their companies and industry?

Sandberg describes her path to being COO of Facebook as looking more like climbing a jungle gym. One look at her collective resume confirms this. She traveled up, laterally, down, then back up some but kind of on a diagonal and finally came to be on the COO rung of an entirely different corporation's ladder in a completely different industry from where she started. She emphasizes throughout Lean In that it was this odd shaped path that prepared her for that role and she believes that "seeking out divers experiences is useful preparation for leadership" (pg. 62). I completely agree and have three suggestions for where to pursue those unique opportunities.

  1. Schools: There are countless professional schools or certification programs that would benefit you in your position, and beyond in some way. Many of these may even be monetarily covered by your company! Expanding your knowledge beyond just want you need for your day-to-day tasks makes you all the more valuable to your company and opens your eyes to the roles of others. An example that comes to my mind right away is say you are in accounting for some company and you often work with the supply department. My suggestion to you would be to see what schools or certificate programs you can take that supply personnel do as well so you can better understand their role.

  2. Cross-department Training: If a formal school or certificate program aren't an option for you, some informal cross-department training may be the key. Your company may actually already have such a program - great! If one isn't already up and running, be a pioneer. Find someone in another department who you already work with in some way and ask them to teach you some of the intricacies of their role. Offer to do the same for them with your role. This will broaden your view of what goes on in your company and may just lead to you finding a role you'd like to explore further thus driving you to make your first lateral, jungle gym-like move.

  3. Exchange Programs: These can be inter-industry, cross-industry, or abroad. Whatever form it comes in, if you have the opportunity, take it! The perspective of a different group of people is always invaluable to whatever role you are in. I vividly remember shadowing a security industry counterpart for three days while working in a military emergency response office. It opened my eyes to how similar, and dissimilar, our processes were. The person that their office sent felt exactly the same way of our office and it's processes. Same industry, essentially, but different takes on doing things that gave all of us involved priceless perspective

Does that really describe a jungle gym Sarah?

Great question! Yes because it does describe a way to diversify your experiences within your industry around your current role. These experiences will expose you to other pieces and parts of the industry at large which could lead you to finding a different role that speaks to the core of who you are. These three suggestions could start you on a jungle gym journey down a whole new path to moving your both forward and towards happiness though it may not look like it at first. "If the other path [makes you] happier and [offers you] a chance to learn new skills, that meant [you were] actually moving forward" (pg. 61).

Whatever opportunity comes your way, lean into it! Try something that's not exactly on your "golden path" ladder to gain some diverse experience and become more than what your current role directs you to be. The worst that could happen is you learn something.

Up Next

We'll be staying with Sandberg's book for the rest of this month and then taking on Valorie Burton's book Let Go of the Guilt: Stop beating yourself up and take back your joy in the New Year! Add it to your holiday wish list today so it'll be there ready for you to dive into well ahead of time. Also......I'm working on a book!!!!! More to come on that but it will be all about your path to success - whatever it looks like.

Until next time, let me know what you think about this book (or any of the books) by reaching out in the comments, sending me an email, or finding me on social media. I love hearing from you! Happy reading.

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