Sep. 9, 2021 1:51 pm

Career Builder: Forget the ladder. Build the career jungle gym

Career ladders only go one direction, and they’re easy to get stuck on. Get more flexible to retain a dynamic workforce, and thrive in your own journey.

Climbing the career jungle gym doesn't always lead straight up.

(Photo by HY AAN from Pexels; image has been cropped)

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up here to get the next one this Friday.

A CEO once told me that any employee who stayed at his company for more than three years wasn’t an “A player.” He said this at a networking event, and if I’m being honest, he seemed a little buzzed on red wine, so I never decided how seriously to take him.

Either way, his point: If you aren’t climbing up and out, you’re doing it wrong. He demonstrated a very familiar trap to management theory — the mistaken belief that what might have worked for you will work for everyone else. Lots of traditionally successful people lead organizations with a mindset that everyone is working to collect ever more impressive-sounding job titles.

Consider the “career ladder” metaphor as we know it: Start as a coordinator, strive to become a manager and maybe, just maybe, reach director level or above. One rung at a time.

If this ever made sense, it certainly doesn’t make sense now. Or so argues Sara Cooper, the chief people officer at Jobber, the 370-person Canadian home service management software company. The mid-pandemic high quit rate that defines today’s Great Resignation is a long time coming. Burnout and disillusionment may have been accelerated by the intertwined crises of the last 18 months but it stems from professionals losing sight of what they actually want.

The pandemic has thrust collective trauma and reflection on the world. Some professionals are looking to maximize their compensation, bidding up salaries for a narrow band. Others are changing industries, altering work schedules and considering priorities altogether. Writer Charlie Warzel, who spoke at last year’s Technical.ly Developers Conference, asked an important question recently: What if people don’t want a career? Or as his alma mater The New York Times put it this month: Work is a false idol.

From our Partners

Drop the career ladder, then, Cooper argues. Pick up the “career jungle gym.” Her metaphor goes like this: The ladder only goes up and down, and there are very few ways to safely climb up. Today’s best playground jungle gyms are multiplatform: swings, spinners and slides of every size. You can climb the highest peak — bully for you! You also, though, can find the activity and the friends that best fit what you want.

Cooper has been refining the jungle gym metaphor and says it’s part of her employee retention and engagement strategy at a fast-growing tech firm that specializes in old school industries. A few tactics she shared:

  • Program internal open houses for important roles. More than 50 Jobber employees attended an internal event about transitioning to product manager roles.
  • Develop individual contributor and management tracks with meaning. Make it no throwaway. What are the compensation and cultural benefits? Choosing an individual contributor track should be celebrated for those who do it well. Management should be pursued because people want to manage, not because it’s the only way up.
  • Celebrate more kinds of wins. Promotions up the career ladder are what our teams are most accustomed to celebrating. But there are others. Work anniversaries can be great ones. Find others. Cooper even notes: Celebrate when someone takes a step back.

That all sounds very contrary to that old career ladder. Usage of the “career ladder” metaphor exploded in the 1960s, reaching its peak in the 1970s, according to Google Books. After World War II, a generation of office workers sought counsel and reprieve from burgeoning management consultants. How do I become successful? Climb, climb, climb — until you can no longer advance, due to skill, willingness, network. In 1968, a Canadian education theorist published a book called “The Peter Principle,” which popularized the idea that we are all promoted to our own level of incompetence — a concept now further backed up by research.

That makes me think back to that CEO. His perspective, I admit, has unnerved me since the moment he said it. It sounded uncharitable at best, and downright dangerous at worst. The lesson from the career jungle gym is that companies need people with all sorts of skills and temperaments. When we find someone who excels at a challenge that needs solving, we must keep them focused there for as long as that work fulfills their needs. When the swings get boring, they have a pair of options: Go to a different playground, yes, or see if there isn’t another important challenge they can take on.

And now the links.

Sign up for the Culture Builder newsletter

What else we’re reading

Company culture stories we’ve published lately

Sign up for the Culture Builder newsletter


From our Partners

A Generocity update, and our 2023 editorial calendar

What to do when your nonprofit’s rep is taking a beating

Scribe explores oral history in ‘Power Politics’ series, funds emerging media makers



Meet Kim Andrews, new executive director for The Fund for Women and Girls

hybrid / Philadelphia


Community Narrative Journalist and Engagement Specialist

Apply Now
2771 Ruth Street, Suite 1 Philadelphia, PA 19134

New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC)

Housing Advisor

Apply Now
2771 Ruth Street, Suite 1 Philadelphia, PA 19134

New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC)

Director of Housing Services

Apply Now

Adult learners need digital literacy, too

How to create a CSR initiative built to last

cinéSPEAK and the future of cinema in West Philly



Be the leader to bring a 26-year mission into the future in Chester County

Hamilton, NJ

Grounds For Sculpture

Graphic Designer

Apply Now

Pennsylvania Horticultural Society

Director, LandCare

Apply Now

Community Legal Services

Chief Equity & Inclusion Officer

Apply Now

Subscribe to Generocity

* indicates required