The Career Ladder Is Broken

September 29, 2015

Connect Member

Founder of CoachMarket: empowering people through professional career coaching

Once upon a time, the average American worker typically joined a company, often at a bottom rung, worked hard, and expected to be noticed and promoted as a result of that hard work. The thought was, if you put in your time and did a good job, you would be rewarded from above with a better job title, a raise, an office, and more prestige. While many workers continue to believe this is the way to build a professional career, there is evidence that it simply doesn’t work anymore.

There are a number of reasons for this. For starters, companies are less loyal to their workers than they were to our grandparents’ generation. The gold watch at the end of a 40-year career is a relic of the past, remembered only in Norman Rockwell paintings. Companies today will ensure their survival and success by rightsizing their workforces in a New York minute. Secondly, the explosion of professional social media has enabled workers to make frequent lateral moves to further their careers.

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, has frequently stated that the necessary strategies workers should use to get ahead in their careers have fundamentally changed. In a recent interview with Business Insider during the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Hoffman said that professional workers should attempt to solve the problem by "getting out in the world and doing things."

"The notion of a career ladder is broken," he said.

Research bears this out. American workers are switching jobs at an ever-increasing rate. On average, today’s business professional will change jobs 15 times over the course of her career. (Remember that teacher in the high school career center who warned you that too many jobs on a resume puts off potential employers? Go ahead and ignore that advice today.)

"As a student or as a young professional or even as a mid-career professional, you need to look at your career like an entrepreneur looks at building a company,” said Hoffman.

First, it’s important to understand the trends driving business today. Global competition and technological change are challenging virtually every sector of our economy and putting pressure on companies’ bottom lines. Yesterday’s leaders are today’s also-rans. Change is constant. The safety net of a career ladder on which you could plot your advancement up the rungs of an organization while earning a pension has given way to a much different reality. It’s up to the individual to make the career decisions that were once made for them by their employers.  

It won’t be easy: Making decisions involves risk, and people (understandably) fear making the wrong choices. Life was less risky when there were fewer decisions to make. Today, the average worker must make decisions at many points along their career journey, even once they’ve become established in their profession. Resting on one’s laurels is no longer an option.

So what does that mean for an individual worker today? It means that taking risks has become inevitable in order to succeed. This may mean cultivating a broad network of professional social media connections, self-promoting through blogs or Twitter, leveraging past and present employment relationships, and leaving a secure job for a less secure one in order to take advantage of greater opportunities.

The prospect is a bit scary. Playing it safe may be easier, but it’s not the best option for a professional trying to build a career. Playing it safe might mean remaining in a job simply because it pays the rent, or because the prospect of learning a new job is too daunting. Rather than avoiding risks, however, a worker that endeavors to get ahead must embrace intelligent risk-taking to gain a competitive edge. For every job a professional might aspire to, there are many other people hoping to claim it, and fortune favors the bold. The risk-taking approach may even require that a worker be flexible with financial compensation — often, great learning opportunities and jobs that will expand a professional’s skill portfolio will initially pay less than stagnant “no future” jobs. The important thing in these cases is to take a long view to success.

To mitigate the risk, professionals should determine what their career endgame is, and then map out the steps required to get there and attain the skills that will be needed. Intelligent risk taking, done right, isn’t actually all that risky. Consulting a professional career advisor at this stage could be beneficial.

In the end, ascending the career leader means acquiring the right skills, building a wide network, and accepting some risk. In a changing world, playing it safe is one of the riskiest things a professional can do.

Glenn Laumeister is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.