A world without career ladders


Suppose you’re hiring. There’s a stack of résumés waiting in your inbox. What qualifies one to move to the “interview” queue, and another to hit the “discard” pile?

If you’re similar to most of us, you’ll tend to favour “orthodox” résumés over ones that are a little bit different.

That means you’ll have a preference for people who have moved around — somewhat, but not too much. Mostly they’ve moved up within their employer. They’ve climbed a career ladder, in other words, and every eight to ten years, changed employers for an obvious jump up the overall ladder to the top.

They’re likely to have stayed in the same industry, or a close cognate to it, as well. Someone who moved from a chartered bank to an insurance company is okay; someone who went through broadcasting to manufacturing to mining to insurance is questionable.

You’ll want to see ever increasing responsibility, authority, headcount and budget control, and accomplishments that grow over time, so that where you at the beginning delivered thousands in benefits you now deliver millions and tens of millions.

The person who took five years out to fix a family business, stepped off the ladder for another four to do a start up, and spent a few years as a consultant with a mid-sized firm, while working in three to five different industries and in two or three different functional areas?

Despite all that experience, that ability to flex and succeed, the weight of evidence is that that résumé will find its way to “discard” most of the time.

Similar things happen with education. Project managers are expected to have the PMP (the Project Management Institute’s designation). They may have taken the subject as a part of their Master of Information Studies degree, but those three letters — PMP — had better be there, or it’s “discard” time. (I have seen a manager discard a résumé for failing to have a PMP when looking for a project manager despite the fact that the résumé disclosed the candidate taught project management for the local university’s continuing studies program, a course used by people preparing for the PMP exams. The candidate had never bothered with a PMP themselves, after twenty years of project management experience and an Masters’ degree that had contained project management education.)

Well, perhaps when most of us worked for largish organizations that were relatively stable these were foibles we could all live with.

Not today, though. The typical young person coming out of school goes through internships, contract positions, part-time work, and projects (some for pay, some volunteer, some supposed to be paid but the start up goes under before the cash flows leaving the worker with shares in nothing much) rather than getting on a career ladder. Their résumé, in other words, is geared toward a “discard” disposition if we don’t rethink how we deal with candidates.

Today, too, the typical person in the mid-fifties and above who got tossed off the career ladder — whether by merger & acquisition, downsizing, forced early retirement, a move to offshore production, or whatever — finds themselves, in just a few years, with a résumé that looks painfully much like that young person’s résumé. Filled with experiences in a variety of settings, but not a career ladder any longer. It, too, tends to find its way to the bin rather than the interview.

This is why the inscription found on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (home of the famed Oracle), “know thyself”, is so important in handling your own personal risks and doing diligence on situations.

If you’re the sort of person who is uncomfortable with a life of one project, then another, then a short stint somewhere only to have the gig fold out from underneath you, then more volunteer work to fill your day while looking for the next thing to do, then you must gear your life to staying on the standard ladder for as long as you can — or (if you’re willing to be your own boss) take up a venture of your own that survives the ups and downs of the economy nicely.

Ever wonder why so many recent graduates eschew business and go get a job at a not-for-profit? It’s knowing their own tolerance for ambiguity well enough to know they need a “regular job”, and a not-for-profit is about as secure as anything gets these days. (Even more so than working for the government.)

But, as this decade concludes and the next one starts, the number of career ladders of old will continue to decline. The ones that remain will be more perilous: there will be less room to hide, doing a good job but nothing spectacular. When even WalMart can’t make its quarterly numbers (because it’s losing too much business to dollar stores) there’s not much room left for just getting by.

If you can tolerate the ambiguity, you can also deal with a world where there’s lots of work, but not always lots of certainty. If you can tolerate the risk/reward stress, you can also deal in a world where new innovations, new startups, can find their place.

If you’re hiring, remember to question your own unstated assumptions about what “good” is when you’re weeding résumés (and don’t let a machine or HR do it for you: if you’re in management, finding quality people is a key part of your job) so that you don’t miss out on a budding star.

And, if you’re one of those who can’t stand not knowing where you fit on the ladder, talk to us. We can’t guarantee you’ll never be pushed off — but we can help you put your best claws onto the ladder to hold on, and your best foot forward if the unwanted happens and you find yourself having to be someone you’re not.

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2 thoughts on “A world without career ladders

  1. Pingback: The shortest distance between employer and candidate | Personal Due Diligence

  2. Pingback: Snakes and Career Ladders | Better Left Unsaid

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