Do you really want to climb that career ladder?

Photo of a ladder into the sky, as a metaphor for promotion on a career ladderWhen you think of careers…

1. What’s your idea of success?

2. What does progression look like?

3. What does promotion mean?

Granted, the picture might lead you… but in my experience, most of us grew up with the idea of a career ladder – a steady, upwards career trajectory.

Typically, it goes something like this:

  • Get onto the bottom rung
  • Learn the ropes
  • Gain experience, move up a few rungs
  • Get really good at what you do…
  • Get promoted into management.

I’ve written before about the changing nature of careers and how we need to adjust our career expectations. The fact is, linear career progression – climbing that imaginary ladder – is increasingly unlikely, as the world around us has changed.

But the ladder’s also problematic in other ways.

It encourages people to equate progression with management. To mistake career success, with a job title.

And that’s a dangerously flawed idea.

I’ve seen the problems this can cause, first-hand, through my work in HR. Problems running the gamut from individual stress, self-doubt and unhappiness… to poor team morale, lowered productivity and high staff absenteeism – even turnover – as aspiring managers struggle to change hats.

And moving to management is a major hat change.

Because being great at what you do is quite different to managing others

And one does not necessarily lead smoothly to the other.  

It’s the difference between playing your own instrument, and conducting the orchestra. Between being personally and directly accountable for your own work… and being responsible for the work of others. For succeeding through them.

Very different roles, requiring different approaches… and different skill-sets.

Something most of us fail to recognise, anticipate, or plan for, in our careers.

Like a great teacher, a great manager – a great leader – is worth their weight in gold.

They understand people, know how to support and grow them; know when to delegate, when to mentor and when to drive. When to be gentle, and when to be tough. Through their skills, they get the best out of their team; they make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Now, how many managers have you met, like that?

My point exactly. There’s a high number of misplaced managers out there, and we all deserve better… because the wrong person in the wrong role is not only stressful, but a waste – for everyone.

What kind of waste? I’ve met great hands-on teachers – people with the gift to change lives – who’ve lost their sense of purpose and job satisfaction in moving out of the classroom, and into management. Highly skilled nurses feeling lost in management meetings, struggling with people politics and deeply missing the direct patient care.

I’ve often worked with clients who don’t really want to be managers, but feel that it’s the only viable, valuable career move; what’s expected. What a waste.

Whoever you are, and wherever you are in your career, success is all about playing to your strengths – putting your skills and talents in the service of something that matters to you. Making your own unique contribution. Adding your value. 

If that includes conducting – managing others – then use those strengths, develop your skills and make that difference. You’re needed.

However, if you’re more interested in playing your own instrument – on doing what you do, directly and really well – then great. You’re just as needed… and you can still have ambition. You can choose to grow, develop and specialise in your chosen area.

In fact, there’s probably never been a better time to ditch the ladder, and create your own version of success.

And if you’re not sure about managing? Ask yourself what it means to you. 

Is it really the job that you want… or just the job title? 

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