It was 2004 and our GCSE Geography field trip was in full swing. Approximately 30 fifteen-year-olds were spending a day on a Speares coach “surveying” a grey and drizzly Nottingham. To be precise, the suburbs.
It was as interesting as it sounds.
Mr “S” - our geography school teacher -was shepherding the trip and he had spectacularly succeeded in numbing the group into silence.
You see Mr “S” had never really had control of the class and within the confines of the classroom he had consistently failed to command respect. We permanently spoke over him.
And for the purpose of this trip we still remained a group of disinterested teenagers.
But on this particular occasion (I think it was a Tuesday) he had unwittingly bored everyone into behaving well. His commitment to suburban geography field trips , combined with the grey drizzle and stagnant coach air had dimmed everyone’s energy – a lunchtime fruit shoot didn’t even fix it.
Mid-way through our adventure (somewhere in between West Bridgford and St Anns) Mr "S" unprompted and blissfully unaware took full advantage of his captive audience and started to regale (no one in particular*) with a story about building materials.
The details I don’t remember.
As I stared out the window pondering what decisions had led him (and us all for that matter) to here, Mr "S"' voice became more animated. I turned to watch. His hands whirring and voice slightly higher-pitched led him to bellow in all his Geography Teacher glory …“ladder, who has a ladder?!”
The coach remained quiet –purpose-built houses had gotten the best of us.
He tried again….”ladder?...I say, ladder! Who has a ladder?”
Despite the passion there was tumbleweed. Then more silence.
And that’s the extent of this anecdote.
Boring wasn’t it?
You see ever since then, whenever anyone starts talking about their career ladder (corporate of otherwise) I imagine Mr "S" stood at the front of the coach, leaning on the mud-brown, cushioned seats talking about ladders.
Sturdy, trustworthy, serving a purpose. But also rigid and only of interest when there’s nothing much else going on.
And this is where I get confused. My clients come to me and tell me they’re stuck in their jobs, bored in their careers but scared they’ll be taking a step backwards if they leave.
And I get it. If they had to stay on a ladder, of course it would be a bit rubbish to take a step down a rung. Ladders are primarily fun when you can see the view from the top (unless you’re scared of heights but that’s a whole other limiting belief for another blog).
In all honesty, I think we should throw the phrase out. A career that is ladder-shaped is structured. It implies a set hierarchy with obvious steps forward and it implies that the most logical thing to do to get to the top is to climb it rung by rung. That is until you get to the top – when you get there though I don’t know what you do. Maybe just look at the view?
You see, corporate ladders were historically made for people (and let’s face it usually Caucasian, privately educated, cis men) who performed, acted, and worked in a certain way.
I’ve had coaching conversations with, at a guess, 200+ people. No one has ever told me their dream is to climb the “Business Advisory Services” ladder. Which leads me to wonder where the fear of climbing back down said ladder comes from, and how come we’re all thinking about careers like ladders in the first place - especially when they weren't particularly designed for us?
If you’re making a career change or want to then part of it is about throwing out the ladder.
It’s about finding a different way to the top and defining what the top is too. There isn’t a set distance between rungs. There isn’t a set path. You might not even know how to get to the top. Maybe it’s a rope you’re climbing instead.
There is no rung to step down onto because if you’re making a change you’re ladder no longer exists.
And yes, there are pros and cons of this. It’s less certain, it’s more difficult to measure success (if you're defining that through comparison with others). At the same time it also means you get to create something that’s more unique to you and you get to determine your own measures for success.
Don’t get me wrong. Some careers are very ladder-like. A hierarchy, a set path. Predictable promotions. Sure, that’s an option and some (but only some) people choose this – there’s nothing right or wrong with it. It’s just a question of whether it’s something you want and whether it excites you.
I had to sit with this question for a while (fifteen years on and off to be precise) before I realised it didn’t excite me. Before I realised I was a bit ambivalent about them. There are too many things I’m interested in and I like being creative too much to stay in a large organisation. I love autonomy and the opportunity that running my own business affords me. It’s ok if you don’t want this and it’s ok if you do.
So before worrying about whether you’re moving up or down a rung, ask yourself...do you really want a ladder?
*maybe like this blog.