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Climb the corporate ladder of success. Build an area of expertise and then claw your way to the top. Both are mantras many executives live by to shape their careers. But many employees have been rethinking that model, especially after the recent economic turmoil.
Job security is a thing of the past; workloads continue to increase by the hour, and loyalty to one company seems an anachronism. Add in the need for a better work/life balance and a multigenerational workforce with differing perceptions of success, and it becomes obvious that a new model for career growth is overdue.
Traditionally, a successful career path was defined by how quickly one could climb the rungs of the corporate ladder and make it to the top. The rules were set and, if you followed them and worked hard, advancement and reward would come your way. Manager ... director ... vice president ... senior vice president ... executive vice president.
While this model remains to some extent, the new reality is that climbing the corporate ladder is an antiquated approach that might not lead you to the top rungs. The newest and most effective model is climbing the corporate lattice -- moving around diagonally, perhaps across multiple companies, and sometimes even moving down, but ultimately rising to higher levels via a much different, challenging, and, yes, even more satisfying path.
In today's rapidly changing business world, one of the most valuable skills is agility -- mental, strategic and emotional. Valued employees must shift gears quickly as the economy crumbles. They must easily acquire new areas of expertise and help their staff members be resilient during times of change. These skills are just as valuable as, and perhaps even longer-lasting than, specific technical or managerial knowledge. Developing agility across disciplines and situations is a key to success in a rapidly changing environment.
So how does one climb on the corporate lattice? The inner drive for personal growth and development and appreciation that your path is going to go up, down and sideways is vital. First and foremost, do an assessment: what is really important in your life and career? Examine the need for work/life balance and take an honest look at your strengths and weaknesses and how your company can benefit from your experience.
Customize your career
With this knowledge, you are ready to begin customizing your career. For example, if you are interested in wide-ranging management, the lattice model encourages taking on different roles to learn more about the company and expand your skills and expertise. While you might be a director hoping for a prime role in marketing, do you really have a full understanding of the sales and distribution process? If not, taking on a role in sales might be a side step for a couple of years, but ultimately you are gaining experience, knowledge and perspectives that will be needed to succeed at a higher level. Therein lies a fundamental advantage of the lattice vs. the ladder: There are multiple paths to greater success vs. just one.
For the employee, the lattice offers greater flexibility. Employees can determine the speed of their career movement by taking on more challenging roles during some stages of life, or perhaps slowing the frantic pace of work at other times. The lattice approach also offers employees the ability to be more "employable" and be repositioned in the organization to fill new needs that arise.
For the organization, the lattice approach allows employers to retain knowledgeable, experienced employees in new roles, avoiding the risk and expense of external hires. It also fosters greater transparency with employees and an opportunity for more candid and valuable discussions during performance reviews. Retention rates are higher when employees are engaged at work and satisfied with their career path, which translates directly to increased productivity, and in many cases, improved performance.
So does the lattice approach work? Yes. At Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, we began to gradually adopt the lattice approach in recent years. We are now beginning to see the results of our new approach through a program called "Career GPS," which has kept employees who have participated in the program more engaged, challenged, and satisfied with the direction of their career.
Career GPS starts with employees being asked to identify their goals and values, life-work profile, and "sweet spot," or area where they believe their talents mesh with organizational needs. Working with their managers, they map out a course that helps them determine steps needed to accomplish their goals. The program has been beneficial both to employees and the organization. We are able to retain key talent and, more importantly, employees have discovered new paths to career success.
Reorienting leaders and employees in an organization is not easy. But those who neglect the lattice approach risk being left behind as the 21st-century workplace evolves. Either way, employees do not need to wait for their company to adopt the lattice concept. Too many people wait for someone else to plot their career course, and that's simply not how it works.
No one ever started work one day and became CEO 20 years later without taking the risks and challenges necessary to grow. If your current employer is not interested, there are other companies that have embraced the approach. It is up to each of us to grow, manage and shape our own careers and organizations to ensure we build and grow the type of satisfying career direction that meets our unique aspirations.