Career Ladders and High Wires

I’m not sure why we talk about career ladders. Most career paths don’t look like ladders. Mine doesn’t, anyway. Career paths often look more like one of those ropes courses where you climb trees, walk on wires, crawl through hoops, and take zip lines. Hopefully all while harnessed. The path isn’t linear, and it doesn’t always go up. Sometimes it goes sideways, or down, before finding a line that leads to a new platform.

I’ve spoken to many ambitious, smart people who are ready to move on in their careers, but are stuck on the idea of being promoted up a ladder. Sometimes that works well. But maybe there is no ladder, or someone has pulled it up behind them. In that case you are going to have to take a zip line, or crawl through a hoop, or jump to a different tree.

Am I pushing the metaphor too far? Let me be concrete. When you are looking to move up in your career, but you don’t see a promotion ahead of you, look around you instead. There are other units, departments, and teams. When they post jobs through HR, they are inviting you to apply. That is the only invitation you need, and it is the only one you are likely to get. Take it.

We can be too cautious when applying for jobs within our own organizations because we are afraid that if we don’t get the new job our old boss will be angry when he finds out we wanted to move. Maybe he’ll be angry either way. We can also be afraid that if we apply for a job that is a reach, senior management will look at us askance, and wonder how arrogant we had to be to think we could rise that far. Those things are possibilities, yes. But they shouldn’t stop you. The reward outweighs the risk.

One of the rewards, even if you don’t get the new job you have applied for, is making connections with people in other units, people who might have the ability to hire you now – or later. Twice in my career I have applied for internal jobs that were way above my head and been told (kindly) after courtesy interviews that I wasn’t ready, but to reapply when I was. In both cases I did reapply, and got the job on the second try.

I am not saying all of this out of pure good will toward other people’s careers. I am a supervisor who sometimes loses good people to other units, and it is inconvenient. But I also know that it is in my organization’s best interest to keep our best people within our doors. Yes, a supervisor might be disappointed and even panicked when a staff member applies for another job internally, but the organization as a whole benefits if talented people fill open jobs. Your supervisor’s distress is not your fault and not your problem. If you make a leap and get a new job, do be helpful in making the transition smooth, and be flexible about straddling new and old positions and having patience in making moves happen. But if there is an open job, and you want it, apply for it. You don’t need anyone’s permission but your own.

In the end, the only person with responsibility for your career is you. Other people may help you, support you, guide you, but in the end you have to plan your own moves, make your own leaps. That means being gutsy and taking risks. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. But at least you are not left standing on a platform looking for a ladder that doesn’t exit.

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