Skip to content
Big Think+

This year, ditch your career ladder for a career lattice!

A businesswoman climbs a staircase as symbol of self-development and career growth.
(Photo: Adobe Stock)
A businesswoman climbs a staircase as symbol of self-development and career growth.

The corporate word-stock suffers no shortage of overworked metaphors. We drill down to find low hanging fruit, and despite lots of moving parts obscuring our window of opportunity, we mustn’t drink the Kool-Aid—uh, something, something boil the ocean.

But if there’s one overworked metaphor to rule them all, it’s climbing the career ladder. This metaphor visualizes a classic conception of career advancement. That being: There’s one path, it leads up, and an employee must climb one rung at a time until they reach the top (or fall trying).

Ubiquitous as it is, today this metaphor is out-of-date. That’s not to say that hierarchies no longer exist in organizations or that employees can’t climb to the top. They are, and they do. For many, though, the image of a ladder doesn’t capture the true essence of their career development accurately.

It’s now 2021, and if any year needed to replace the old with the new, this is it. So why not kick things off with a new way in which to visualize our career development?

In this video preview of his expert class, Neil Irwin, senior economics correspondent at The New York Times, explains why the “career lattice” offers a more productive metaphor.

Make lateral moves

  • In the past, professional achievement was conceived as a career ladder. Today, think about it as a career lattice, or grid. Growth is not just about moving up; it’s also about moving sideways and sometimes even down slightly. The idea is to cut across different specialties and understand how they fit together.

The lattice is a more useful metaphor because it takes into account the varied career moves one can make. You can move up, but you can also move side-to-side and even down. And unlike the career ladder, a downward move on a lattice isn’t necessarily a sign of failure. It could be the strategic repositioning that sets up a beneficial move in the future. 

Pardon us for mixing our metaphors, but it’s like replacing career checkers with career chess.

Irwin stresses the importance of these lateral moves because they help us become well-rounded employees and individuals. Cutting across different specialties widens our perspective of how industries operate and makes us more valuable than one-trick wonders.

That’s because modern organizations favor a team mindset. Employees who understand how other specialties work can assist different teammates and can use technical skills across many potentials to quickly and efficiently find their place in a team. Such fluidity improves communication and prevents the gumming up of workflow.

Raise your hand

  • When you’re newer to the workforce, jumping around is less risky. Have the courage to seek out new opportunities:
    • Volunteer for teams or departments outside your comfort zone.
    • Embed with a different group.
    • Sign up for a special project.
  • Compensation is about more than pay and benefits; it’s also about gaining experiences and setting yourself up for the future.

In short, take a chance. You never know where new opportunities can lead. You may find a hidden talent or skill to hone. You may discover a new subject that excites you. Alternatively, you may find you absolutely loathe certain tasks. Whatever the case, it’s vital information you can use to direct your career moving forward.

As Irwin notes, a risk’s riskiness varies at different times in one’s life and career. Young employees have more latitude to try new things and experiment with new positions. Older, more entrenched employees may find they have less room to move—both at work (because they’ve specialized) and in their personal life (mortgages need to be paid).

If you find yourself in the latter category, don’t think that means you have to play it 100 percent safe. Instead, take small, measured risks that allow you to experiment. If things don’t work out, fine. You’re not out much, and you have new data. But if things do work out, you should find your next career move pays out more than what you may have lost.

Think in 3-year blocks

  • In the past, employment was conceived as an indefinite term of service. Instead, think of it as a tour of duty–a 2-3 year mutual commitment with your employer to a defined project or role. When the tour of duty expires, re-evaluate your employer.
  • Train yourself to have a 3-year itch when it comes to your professional growth. Every few years, ask: How can I explore the next option, either internally or externally with a new company?

Under the ladder paradigm, employees didn’t have to consider their career plan. It’s planned out in advance. You start on one rung and then move up to the next one. What happens after that? The next rung, of course!

Under the lattice paradigm, you need a plan for professional growth; otherwise, you risk being pushed in directions that don’t serve your interests, goals, or sense of self-fulfillment.

You’ll need to consider your needs and your industry when deciding what an appropriate tour of duty is. For example, a college professor may move around a lot in their early career, but once they are on a tenure track, they’re wise to stick it out at their current university.

If, like a professor, the three-year tour doesn’t apply directly to you, you can still use it as a rule of thumb by which to plan your tour. The first part is about learning the ropes.  The second part is where you find your stride. And the third part is when you need to scratch that itch.

When the itch arrives, analyze your current situation and ask yourself, “Am I still broadening my experiences? Am I learning new things? Am I finding fulfillment?” If the answers are yes, consider another tour. If they are no, you need to find a way to make them affirmatives.

The answers could come internally at your company or from somewhere else. Again, much depends on your needs, your organization, and your industry. The takeaway of Irwin’s advice is hop off that crowded ladder, get strategic with your lattice, and make self-analysis a regular habit. And 2021 is as good a year to start as any!

Join the #1 community of L&D professionals

Sign up to receive new research and insights every Tuesday.