What If Climbing the Corporate Ladder is Not the Answer?

What If Climbing the Corporate Ladder is Not the Answer?

Get Paid to Share Your Expertise

Help shape the future of business through market research studies.

See Research Studies

The corporate ladder was born out of the scientific school of management to control efficiency by creating positions to oversee production.

Organizations interlocked chunks of work and moved people into these positions based on their performance and track record.

Promotions became a game of achieve and advance, motivated by money, titles, status, and prestige.

The formula for success: work hard, do good work, get results, move up. 

Or so we think.  

Pulling Back the Curtain

One might understand the ladder in a predictable economic environment, but today’s organizations are whipsawed by change and uncertainty.

How can a laddered organization function when the top is sheared off, when mergers, acquisitions, and financial devastation eliminate jobs, and when certain knowledge and skills become obsolete?

It gets worse. As you climb higher, you see the path is not a meritocracy. It’s a competition – fewer opportunities, less real estate, more restrictions. When high achievers look up, they think they need to work harder, to do more. Not true. When women and people of color look up, they don’t see many people who look like themselves. The promise of “the sky’s the limit” turns out to be something more insidious: the road to not good enough.

Upward movement is based on how those in power judge your performance, not about objective standards of performance.


The ladder is broken, stressed by the lack of diversity, inequity, exclusion, and emotional stability:

  • For every dollar earned by a white male, a white female earns $.81; a black male, $.87; a black female, $.85. 
  • For representation in the C-Suite:  66% are white men, 12% are men of color, 19% are white women, and 3% are women of color. 
  • Stress and burnout impact roughly three out of four employees in a study conducted in 2019. 
  • Gallup reports that only 36% of employees are moderately or highly engaged in their jobs. That means roughly two-thirds of discretionary effort is left at the front door.

What are your options?

Continue to climb?

Motivate yourself. Don’t stop. Persevere. Work harder. Do more. Find the answer. Get results. Work more hours. Prove yourself. Don’t quit.

However, the playing field is not level. If you’re anything other than a tall (6ft., 2in.) aging, white male with a deep voice and in fit condition, your ascension is limited.   


Some people do. The sense that at any time they could be asked to leave. Or, it could be a case where they are not in a motivating job and see this as the opportune time to start their own business or to change direction altogether. 

Get pushed off?

Different from a jump, getting pushed off compounds emotional damage. This could happen at any time. Time to use the help of career advancement professionals to determine what’s next.

Be stuck or get unstuck?

Stuck happens for a number of reasons – your mental state, the job, the organization. Some see stuck as an inflection point, not a crisis. You didn’t get the promotion. The job has changed and is no longer interesting. You already reached the career goals you set for yourself. The merger has made your role less important. One thing is for sure. Getting unstuck takes self-motivation and time to experiment, to try new opportunities, even if they are baby steps. 

A Different Approach to Career Development

A ladder-climbing culture rests on the personal belief that your organization looks out for your best interest.

They are responsible for the path of your career. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Climbing the ladder is a mirage for most people. 

The person that needs to control your career development is you. No one is more invested. Even the most enlightened, talent-oriented organizations do not have the savvy to tap into your personal motivation. External rewards like signing bonuses and promotions are noble but short-term fixes. Their other available tool is the culture. While the culture sounds good, it takes a level of leadership commitment and perseverance that most organizations don’t have.   

If you believe leadership gurus like Marshall Goldsmith and Laurence Peter, the skills and practices that got you to a mid-level rung on the ladder will take you no higher. At this level, people are engaged in a career version of Twister that requires more contortions for fewer opportunities. It’s a demoralizing and disempowering journey.

Changing the ladder system is near impossible, and it is not your role. But changing your approach to work is both possible and within your control. 

 1. Change your mindset 

Instead of thinking that you’ll advance by adding accomplishments to your resume, focus on building organizational capacity.

Change the center of your universe from yourself to others. When you help others succeed, you broaden your reach and impact, and scale your capabilities across a wider group. This difference in mindset is burning the ladder, not climbing it.

2. Build relationships 

Building relationships sounds like basic leadership advice.

The difference in this context is relationships replace personal achievements as the motivational force for career development.  Relationships expand a personal sense of meaning and fuel a sense of something bigger. You enter into a world based on exploration and opportunity, working with interesting and interested people who, like you, want to engage in something important.

3. Focus on impact and meaning 

Impact and meaning are built on a base of credibility and trust.

The good news about them is they are skills as well as mindsets. Studying people, building relationships, listening, selling your ideas, getting commitment, and working as a partner and strategist are daily practices, not optional activities. 

We are at a major inflection point about how people will define success in their jobs and careers.

I think burning ladders and building bridges will be the future answer people are looking for to create meaning in their careers and their lives.

Alan Patterson
About the Author
Alan Patterson

Dr. Alan M. Patterson is an organizational development consultant, specializing in executive and leadership development.  Having led hundreds of clients for over four decades, Dr. Patterson continues to ignore standard coaching methods, opting to pursue and lead clients down the path of meaningful careers that are not only successful, but also rewarding. He’s worked with everyone from the Federal Reserve Bank to Hewlett Packard to Major League Baseball and the United States Navy. His new book is Build Bridges. Pursuing Work with Meaning and Purpose. Learn more at dralanpatterson.com.

Similar Articles

Show more