Episode #56 - Fixing the "Broken Rung:" Replacing the Career Ladder with a Career Lattice to Advance Career Mobility
Hey Rebels! Welcome back to the podcast. Today we're going to talk about why individuals and organizations need to abandon the idea of the career ladder in favor of the career lattice to advance career mobility.
In traditional organizations, career advancement has often followed a linear path that resembles a ladder. The idea was that employees start at the bottom and then climb up the ladder earning promotions and pay raises along the way based on loyalty and performance. However it’s time this model of career development got updated.
The career ladder concept originated in the early 20th century when industrialization and the growth of large corporations created a need for standardized career paths and structured career development programs. And the term "career ladder" was first coined in the 1940s and became popular in the 1950s as a way to describe the vertical, hierarchical structure of career advancement in many organizations.
But the career ladder is based on the patriarchal societal ideas of survival of the fitness, competition, and that there’s always a winner and loser in the “rat race” of life. It’s been used as a way to motivate employees to engage in this competitive framework by providing a clear path for career advancement and the of course rewarding the winner with a promotion and raise. And let’s be frank, it’s worked well (and continues to do so) for men, but it’s done nothing but leave women and other marginalized populations behind and at a disadvantage.
It's clear that for women there's always been "broken rung" on that ladder and it has remained unfixed, according to McKinsey's Women in the Workplace Report. For the eighth consecutive year, a broken rung at the first step up to manager has held women back and for some women there are more than a few broken rungs on that ladder.
That’s why it’s time to embrace a new approach.
The concept of a career lattice is relatively new and emerged in response to the limitations of the traditional career ladder approach for women and other diverse populations. However, it has gained popularity recently as organizations began, post-pandemic, to recognize the need for more flexible and personalized approaches to career development.
I've been an advocate for this approach and have not only coached women on how to master it but also used it propel my own career trajectory.
As a social scientist by training and as someone who loves research, I tend to geek out on career development and organizational theories. Some in the field have attributed the origins of the career lattice approach to the work of career development theorists such as Donald Super and his Self-Concept Theory and Linda Gottfredson's Theory of Circumscription and Compromise, which she developed about10 years after Super.
These theoretical frameworks emphasized the importance of considering individual differences, experiences, and preferences in career planning. They recognized that you couldn't create or follow a career path in isolation and not consider the individual's lived experience and the social construct in which they find themselves.
So, coupled with the increasing demands on the modern workplace, including the need for employees to acquire a broader range of skills and experiences, the career lattice approach, if done right, can offer better support for career mobility and growth for women and other marginalized populations.
However, organizations must embrace the underlying assumptions of the purpose and application of the career lattice approach, which is to provide greater flexibility and support to the individual so they can achieve their career goals, not what others believe or think their career goals should be. So education on how to create a successful program will be necessary, so it doesn't become just another poorly implemented or executed “policy," instead of a productive and effective way to advance women leaders.
A career lattice provides women with a range of options for career advancement rather than the linear one a career ladder offers. Women can move vertically and horizontally, exploring different roles and functions to gain new skills and experiences, positioning them for new and exciting opportunities.
This will have significant benefits for organizations. When done right, the utilization of a career lattice will improve the engagement and retention of women. It avoids the demotivation that comes when women feel stuck in one role or function without any opportunities for growth or advancement, or when women find themselves in positions they were advised to pursue because it seemed like their only option. When women have more control over their career path and choices and know they're not jeopardizing their success, they’re more likely to be invested in their work and committed to staying with the organization.
A career lattice provides more opportunities for women and others from diverse backgrounds to explore different roles and functions and gain greater visibility throughout the organization, which could break down barriers to advancement and promote a more inclusive workplace culture.
And, of course, with the expanded experience in different roles and functions, innovation is fostered by developing new ideas and approaches. Also, by gaining exposure to other parts of the organization and collaborating with colleagues from diverse backgrounds, employees are more likely to develop innovative solutions to new and ongoing business challenges.
When you allow individuals not only to customize and design a career path that is in alignment with their vision, their life, and their goals, knowing it will not hinder their progression, they will be more productive, engaged, and likely to stay because they feel valued, respected, supported, and are finding career and life satisfaction.
Now, implementing a career lattice requires a thoughtful and strategic approach. Therefore, I want to share some practical strategies leaders can use to implement a career lattice and advance career mobility within their organizations. My company uses six (6) key strategies to support organizations that want to implement this approach for career mobility and reap the benefits of decreased attrition rates.
Identify and define the various career paths available and determine the skills and competencies required for each role. This can help employees understand the opportunities available and what they need to do to advance in their careers.
Develop individualized career development plans that identify purpose, passion, vision, goals, and the steps needed to achieve them. This might include setting performance goals, identifying training and development opportunities (in and outside the organization), and seeking out trained sponsors and outside executive coaches such as our team.
Provide training and development opportunities to upskill and build skills and competencies required for cross-functional roles. This might include workshops, online courses, job shadowing, and coaching.
Encourage cross-functional experience to develop broader skills and knowledge that will prepare individuals for their future. Whether that means employees will stay within the organization or leave.
Create a culture of continuous learning where employees are encouraged to seek out new challenges and opportunities for growth and not feel like a move will lead them to a dead end. This might involve recognizing and rewarding employees who take on new roles, projects, or responsibilities like working on diversity committees and providing money and support to higher coaching support.
Monitor and evaluate progress toward career goals, providing feedback support as needed. This can help employees stay on track and adjust their career development plans.
Now, of course, if an organization lacks the resources to implement a career lattice approach to career mobility, or there's any resistance to this process because leaders don't want to invest the time and effort required to implement this new approach, it won't be successful.
Also, some organizations may have limited career paths because they're too entrenched in their hierarchical structure. There must also be support for implementing a career lattice approach to career mobility requiring buy-in and support from leaders at all levels of the organization and employee interest. Although, from my perspective, traditional workspaces or those entrenched in a patriarchal paradigm will often find little interest in pursuing this approach.
So it will be essential to consider the unique needs and priorities of the organization and its employees when determining the most effective approach to career mobility.
To get started, collect data on your organization's current state of career mobility. Pay particular attention to satisfaction, engagement, and attrition rates. An analysis of the data should reveal any potential roadblocks or barriers to advancing this approach. Next, once you analyze the data, you can identify goals, create the key metrics you'll follow, and review them to assess your progression and success. Finally, be sure to prioritize resources and create a communication plan highlighting the program's benefits. We embed this crucial strategy in all our consulting projects because, without an effective communication and marketing strategy, you may meet resistance because of dissonance between intention and impact.
Also, be open to feedback and suggestions for improvement. You want to avoid inadvertently building a process or culture that only benefits giraffes (or just one population of your organization). This is a throwback to R. Roosevelt Thomas' story of the elephant and giraffe.
While achieving positive retention and engagement rates should be expected, don't underestimate your ability to unlock innovation. By providing employees with opportunities to learn and grow, you're more likely to see new and fresh ideas and perspectives that will make you more competitive in the marketplace.
And listen, with women leaders switching jobs at the highest rates ever seen, and with the next generation of women readily prepared to do the same, organizations that provide this approach to career mobility will help to address some of the critical issues and challenges that are causing more and more women to leave the workplace.
Using a career lattice approach to career mobility will help to reduce biases, hopefully curb microaggressions, and stereotypical assumptions because it will give individuals across all areas of the organization greater exposure to working with differing populations. In addition, organizations will have greater flexibility to fit the changing needs and priorities of the women and other diverse people within the workforce.
And the increased representation and visibility of women in leadership and other high-level roles within the organization creates can help to remove barriers and ultimately give women and high-potentials more opportunities.
Leaders, L&D, and HR professionals must partner to support the career mobility of their people to build a more robust, more diverse talent pipeline and improve their overall performance and competitiveness. Equally, women and women of color should work with their coaches, sponsors, or mentors to create a professional development goal that supports a lattice approach to their career success.
It’s a new approach, but one that positions everyone to successful navigate the future of work.
That's it for this episode. Be sure to share it with leaders within your organization that you believe could benefit other women to learn how to embrace the idea of a career lattice over a career ladder.
See you next time. And until then, have an amazingly rebellious week!