4 reasons students need to scale a rock wall rather than climb a ladder

Career service centers on college campuses should lead the charge in redirecting the career path mentality
By: | November 17, 2021
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Kimberlee Josephson, Lebanon Valley College

Kimberlee Josephson, Lebanon Valley College

Climbing the corporate ladder is a concept that illustrates the attainment of status and success over time. And this notion serves as a powerful motivator for employees seeking both recognition and a raise.

Earned promotions within an organization tend to be viewed as a badge of honor and increases one’s credibility by garnering respect. However, it is time to rethink this classic ladder metaphor since a career path is rarely a straightforward climb—and universities should prepare students to seize opportunities and craft their own way forward.

Indeed, given today’s dynamic workplace environment, career service centers on college campuses should lead the charge in redirecting the career path mentality to one that views advancement as consisting of a rock wall rather than a ladder, and here are a few reasons why:

1. Ladders assume a pre-set, rung-by-run approach. Promotions and advancement, however, are not always guaranteed and are not always performance or position-based. Moreover, existing roles have the potential of becoming obsolete over time resulting in current aspirational positions to disappear.

As such, organizations that encourage role-hopping, cross-functional teaming, and forms of “intrapreneurship” will have greater flexibility in providing employees challenging tasks along with a variety of opportunities for advancement. And since a large majority of employees work in fields unrelated to their degrees anyway, transitioning to positions that differ from past experiences shouldn’t be viewed as a hurdle for growth within an organization.

2. Ladders are one-way, and it is either go up or get off. Movement within a firm can be lateral or, depending on personal situations and lifestyle choices, downward shifts may be preferred (instead of getting off altogether). Part-time options or departmental changes may be of great interest to some employees.

Actually, 75% of Generation Z have expressed a desire for having multiple roles within one place of employment. The motivations for a position can vary greatly, and so the concept of a rigid straightforward ladder makes little sense.

3. Ladders require waiting ones turn for the next rung to become available. The chain of command is not like it used to be. Within the past several decades, firms have obtained value by decentralizing decision-making, encouraging collaboration, and promoting skill-development amongst lower-level staff members.

Thus, the lines of a hierarchal structure serve more as network for companies to expand and diversify departments rather than determine who acquires a position when someone else resigns. Employees should aim to develop transferable skills and managers should invest in furthering employee competencies and team building to both improve productivity as well as the organization’s culture.

4. Ladders are one-by-one and stand-alone. One of the greatest aspects of a rock wall mentality is the understanding that one should never climb alone. Unlike a ladder, scaling a rock wall requires support whether it is before and/or during the climb.

Learning from others is of benefit to climbers regarding what paths were taken, what resources are needed, what mistakes have been made, and what rewards lie ahead. And even the most determined mountaineers require guides, like the sherpas of Everest. Therefore, offering guidance when appropriate or asking for assistance when needed should be a common practice within organizations—and college campuses should encourage those approaching graduation to seek out firms that prioritize people-oriented approaches.

Being creative is a choice

Experiences are meant to be shared and since the success of an individual leads to the success of a company, managers and mentors should empower employees for advancement in a variety of ways and scrap the ladder legacy.

The rock wall mentality conveys that a career should be challenging, allow for self-direction, and may necessitate a leap of faith every now and then. Climbing a rock wall requires grit and creativity, and these attributes are necessary for organizations to be sustainable and competitive—and colleges should be preparing students for harnessing these skillsets.

According to psychologist and leadership expert Robert Sternberg, being creative is a choice and it is a choice that must be exercised. Like with scaling a rock wall, individuals must be willing to take risks, embrace ambiguity, be strategic, think critically, and build up capacities and competencies for the next summit to be reached.

The pride one gains from advancement within an organization not only benefits the organization, but the individual as well. Sir Edmund Hillary (the first man to summit Mt. Everest) said it best: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

Kimberlee Josephson is associate dean of the Breen Center for Graduate Success and an associate professor of business at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania.