Career Ladders

The Problem with Career Ladders

Traditional career ladders have all kinds of problems. These are the four that I have identified.

I once had a small disagreement with the HR manager of an organization where I worked. She showed me the suggested career paths that software developers could have in our organization. To my horror I saw, if I remember well, that Software Testers could become Software Developers (the other way around was not expected), Software Developers might become Project Managers (not the other way around), and Project Managers could become Business Unit Managers (again, not the other way around). And, as could be expected from a hierarchically oriented organization, all the roads ultimately led to the Pope in Rome. Or, in our case, one top management position, which was theoretically possible, but practically unavailable.

Management bias is the main problem of traditional career ladders. The only meaningful opportunity to gain status and earn better wages in many organizations is to be promoted into management. For anyone familiar with the movie business this makes little sense. What could be the next step for Julianne Moore? Be promoted to a position of Lead Actress? Actress Manager? Vice-President of Acting? Certainly, some actors become directors. But most don’t. And successful directors have sometimes been unsuccessful actors, and vice versa. Most importantly, whether people want to be an actor or a director is their own free choice. They don’t wait to get “promoted” to an available position by anyone else. They choose their career steps, present themselves as candidates, and get picked for new projects based on their reputation. Or not.

The Peter Principle is the second problem with traditional career ladders. It says that workers in hierarchies get promoted until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent. And then they stay there, not able to get any further promotions. The Peter Principle virtually guarantees that all upper levels of hierarchical organizations are full of incompetent people, who are unable to move further up their ladders. (Please note that this is a universal problem; it does not apply only to managers named Peter.)

The third problem with traditional career ladders is that new economic and technological developments scream for more variety in possible career paths. Linearity is out, and non-linearity is in. Maybe a project manager wants to try her hand at account management, and work mainly from her home. Maybe a recruiter would like to be an HR manager for just a year. Maybe a designer and animator get married and want to share a job and a child. Maybe an office manager wants to work half-time for a while, launching his own web shop for second hand office supplies. Career paths not only go up. They can also go sideways, forward, and even backward sometimes. Modern businesses in the 21st century must learn how to accommodate for all of this, and more.

Finally, the fourth problem, I have a vision that one day, far into the future, nobody will ever insult any worker with the infamous words, “I want to talk with your superior.” Because there won’t be any subordinates and superiors. Just people, working together.

My new book Managing for Happiness is available from June 2016.

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  • Yves Christol

    I can’t agree more. the next question is: where are the roadblocks ?

    In large companies, obviously, management will resist the idea management should not be central anymore. This one being easily spotted, even if not easily fixed since management owns the governance, I would like to raise another one: selection.

    Even according to Peter’s Principle, managers were good at something at some point, so maybe they didn’t deserve their current position but they probably did the former one. Hiring a guy who had once been promoted give some hints about his dedication, a recruiter may believe. I’m not saying it’s an efficient method, I’m saying it’s a general belief because the other assessment means (interviews, CVs, recommendations, you name it) are worse since people lie.

    That’s why I think the end of the career ladders will badly need new assessment / hiring tools in order to happen. Something better than tarots and numerology, I mean.

  • Matthew Middleton

    I agree with you Jurgen – the Peter Principle is too simplistic to really work as advertised. I’m all for people moving from technical roles to management, if that’s where their interest and skills are heading. The problem is, it seems like people often get promoted to management positions based on technical skills, rather than their ability to manage people. They’re very different skillsets, and while a person CAN have both, it doesn’t mean that they do.

    • jurgenappelo

      Well, I don’t have the complete answer. But the full article (of which this post is a small piece) outlines some more developed ideas. 🙂

  • Jonathan Keller

    Great vision, “…there won’t be any subordinates and superiors. Just people, working together.” I’ve always been drawn to a flat organizational structure, but didn’t have the words for it as simply as you’ve stated.

    Recently, I listened to Simon Sinek ( talk about how we “…evolved into hierarchical animals” (22:35). The overall context is that he’s comparing good leadership with bad leadership, not the organizational ladders. Still, how do we resolve our instinctual hierarchical tendencies with a flat organizational structure?

    • Jonathan Keller

      Whoa! Didn’t realize the link would appear as big as it did. Jurgen, if you’d like I can remove it as it is not totally relevant to the topic of “career ladders”.

      • jurgenappelo

        I’ve never seen this either. Must be a new feature of Disqus. It’s OK for me, thanks.

  • Storewars News

    Nice read! Very informative. Did you know that China’s Growing Hunger
    for Yogurt Hits Global Supplies? Full story here:

  • Travis Farrar

    Great article, and I just choked on my Jelly Belly reading about the part time office manager!

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