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Imagine the ladder’s gone

For years, we’ve read about the struggles of women in climbing the corporate ladder and reaching the top.  Much has been written about why it occurs and what we can do about it.  I offer a different view, namely that the whole notion of a career ladder is an assumption – a mythology – that can limit who and how we are in organizations.

When we assume that a ladder exists and that it’s the path to success – when we treat these assumptions as “truths” about “the way it is” — we can easily mistake ladder-climbing as our journey and a top rung as our goal. When that happens, we’re at risk for some costly tradeoffs.

  • When we disagree with those higher up, do we speak openly and authentically or do we tow the party line?
  • When the ladder narrows, do we embrace others as collaborators or jockey around them as competitors?
  • If someone else gets the promotion, do we genuinely revel in her success or silently resent her ascendance over our own?
  • As we near the top, do we become more inventive and willing to risk since we have the authority, or more cautious and politically correct since we have more to lose?

From one perspective, ladder-climbing is a guy’s game with guys’ rules and values [guys love rank and status]. It’s not a “bad” game; it’s just not our game. So when we buy the ladder myth and its trappings, we risk diminishing the value of our own strengths: our abilities to form and sustain supportive, collaborative networks, to nurture people’s spirits and their capacity to contribute to the well-being of others, to know and stay grounded in what’s most meaningful to those we serve.

When I call career ladder assumptions a mythology, I mean that they’re just metaphors and stories we create to help explain something we observe and don’t understand. We can let them define our world–by insisting that a ladder exists and that we’ve been shut out of the top rungs by forces beyond our control–or we can choose a different metaphor [like lattices or webs of inclusion] and different stories about making meaningful connections and contributions in our own powerful ways.

Chris, one of my former clients, does the latter. She got into management by pursuing what fascinated her. Curiosity and high energy, not the organization chart, were her barometers. She nurtured and moved with ease through multiple networks of colleagues, linking people and ideas, developing anyone who wanted to grow, and earning the respect and authority that come from connecting with others in meaningful ways. Because of her curiosity and connections, she picked up on trends and opportunities that others missed. By not confusing meaningful work with ladder climbing, her career “path” resembled adventurous wandering rather than a linear shot up the rungs.

Since the ladder myth is powerful and pervasive, when Chris measured her career by it, she quickly slid into self-criticism. “I’ve had no strategy,” she said on more than one occasion. Yet she does have a strategy: the strategy of following her heart and of tirelessly pursuing meaningful work and relationships. When she’s pulled into the myth, she comes up short. When she puts the myth aside, she knows that making a difference is more important than making it to the “top.”

Because Chris’s career has been less goal-directed than her colleagues’, and more intuitive, growth-centered, and relationship-based, it has made her one of the most valuable, trusted, and sought-after executives in her organization. Because of her genuineness, people seek her counsel, confide in her, and invite her to join their teams. Because the ladder doesn’t matter in her world, she finds opportunities others don’t see.

So if you’re stuck on the ladder and feeling low, try on the notion that it’s just a myth, a story that is limiting rather than expanding your options. Create a different story, beginning with what’s really, deeply important to you. Speak with courage from the heart. Have the compassion to celebrate everyone’s successes. Co-create with others the kind of work environment you want by inviting everyone to bring more of who and how they are to those they serve.  Model the way. And don’t let myths of making it hold you back.

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