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Building Many Different Career Ladders

Career ladders

In Primed to Perform, the authors discuss the importance of building a few different career ladders within your organization. The typical career ladder (become good at something then move to managing people) isn’t for everyone and susceptible to the Peter Principle.

What kind of other career ladders could you build within your organization? The authors lay out three potentials.

The Managerial Ladder

This is the career ladder we’re all familiar with. Individuals that pursue this ladder are masters of motivation and leading others. They thrive with solving difficult problems and seeing others thrive.

The Expert Ladder

Individuals that pursue this ladder develop extensive domain expertise. They become masters of their craft and share that knowledge with the rest of the company.

Let’s take a sales rep as an example. Instead of moving into a managerial role, they could perfect the art of talking to clients and making the sale. The trick then becomes not leading others but downloading their expertise in a way that helps everyone else.

The Customer Ladder

Before reading Primed to Perform, I didn’t think of this as a separate ladder. The authors describe the “Customer ladder” as a role where employees master the art of talking to customers, understanding the direction of the company, and translating feedback to product teams. This role straddles marketing, sales, and product development.

I’m not sure I agree that the Customer ladder is useful as a third ladder. In reality, I think it could fit in the Expert ladder category, which would leave us with two options:

  1. Move into a leadership role.
  2. Become an expert in your field and help everyone else level up.

Regardless of which you choose, there needs to be an aspirational point, the pinnacle for success amongst those on your ladder. This is pretty straightforward for the Managerial ladder, but what about the Expert ladder? How do you define the pinnacle of that track?

Primed to Perform provides the example of IBM, which created a position called a “Fellow” to honor their top research scholars. It’s often considered more prestigious than a management position. A “Fellow” is someone within IBM that “embodies a place with pioneering vision in an ever-expanding field.” Fellow achievements include things like developing the first microscope that could show atoms and building the system that put the first man on the moon.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit with Automattic. How do you create a culture that emphasizes the importance of the Expert ladder? One way is simple. Automatticians continue to get pay increases regardless of whether they move into a leadership position. Therefore, a typical incentive (pay) is removed in many ways from a specific career ladder. This is just one idea, and other opportunities certainly exist to really highlight the contributions of the expert.

If you’ve figured out how to create the Expert ladder within your company, I’d love to chat. It’s certainly something I’m interested in!

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