The Rungs of Opportunity
Choosing whether or not to climb the corporate ladder.
I’m finding a common theme in conversations with friends lately about where they are in their careers after many years of climbing the corporate ladder. When I say corporate ladder, I’m referring to the ranking system or hierarchy within a company.
Once they started working, they all got right in line with everyone else, reaching for the next rung up on the ladder. I personally have no memory of the first time I heard the phrase “climbing the corporate ladder”, but I’m pretty sure it was at a very early age and before I took on my first job.
Several of my friends are finding themselves at a crossroads, having spent decades honing their skills and moving up in their careers. During this rise in rank, there was never talk about whether or not climbing the ladder was necessary or the right move for them. It was pretty much an unspoken fact that they should climb as high as they could until they reached the top. Superiors and co-workers would congratulate them, friends were happy for them, and they personally felt proud for each step they took up the ladder.
All of the positive feedback they received felt so good that it masked the fact that in a lot of ways they’ve been climbing away from parts of their job that they really enjoyed. While climbing the ladder came with its perks - a higher salary for example - it also meant more responsibility and often less time spent working on the type of work that interested them in the first place.
“I woke up one day to find myself in a job that had pulled me so far from what I loved doing. People who I managed were doing the work I used to do, while I was busy in budgeting meetings and updating spreadsheets.”, shared a VFX Supervisor.
Whether it is sitting in endless meetings, creating and editing spreadsheets, or simply managing a team, it is a far cry from being knee deep in the trenches creating.
It’s been surprising to me that a fair number of artists I know have found themselves in similar positions that no longer satisfy their needs as a creator. Many of them have been in the industry for some time now and have worked their way into positions that pull them away from the type of activities that got them into their line of work to begin with.
I also talked with friends who haven’t taken on higher positions in a company, continue to avoid climbing the corporate ladder and are quite happy for doing so. They have no desire to take on additional responsibilities and prefer to be assigned tasks and simply create… which is the one thing that attracted them to their line of work to begin with.
One artist adds, “I got into this business to make a living creating cool stuff. As long as I get to continue to create, I’m really not concerned with my position in the company. All I need is the ability to support my life with my art. If I wanted to climb the ladder and get my fulfillment through corporate achievement, I would still be working for a bank.”
Some of my friends have found moving up the ladder into leadership roles rewarding. While these new positions might require less time working directly on assets of a project, the ability to a lead a team can be equally rewarding. Playing a role in increasing a team’s performance, mentoring others and insuring that deadlines are met on time and within budget can equal or surpass the sense of accomplishments of an individual’s achievements.
“There is a lot to be said for moving into management, but it's not for everyone. Companies live and die by the decisions that management make, so it can be a stressful position to take on” explains an executive at a software company. “One benefit of taking a leadership role is that you can have a positive effect on the careers and happiness of everyone on your team.”
One thing to keep in mind when moving into a leadership role is to keep up with your skillset. As people move into management, they often lose proficiency in the tools of their trade. A good artist can always find work, but middle management sometimes has a harder time finding a new gig.
"One very safe way to 'climb to the top' is to start your own business or work for a small one where you can wear multiple hats. If you want to keep your hands in the craft but also satisfy a need for career progression managing a small team while working in the trenches with them is a great way to have your cake and eat it too. But remember, your success might mean a rapidly growing company which may lead you to a position you hadn't bargained for." , adds a co-founder.
So what is the right path to take? Should you climb the corporate ladder or avoid it at all costs? Find a middle rung and hold tight?
There is no one size fits all career path. It’s important to define your personal and career goals and determine what’s important to you.
Carefully select each rung of the ladder you grab. Don’t feel obligated to race up the corporate ladder. Consider what a new position will truly mean, and weigh the cost versus benefits before stepping up. Have a conversation with your supervisor to discuss your concerns and get everything out on the table. Talk with your peers who have been or are currently in similar positions.
Another artist adds, "I think as a culture we are obsessed with the gamification of life. People somehow feel if they aren't 'leveling up' they aren't moving forward. This is a fallacy and one that should be corrected. Perhaps people would be happier in life if they could focus on personal growth or artistic growth over corporate ladder climbing. If you love your work, remember what it is you love. Before you try to escape your job for that next rung on the ladder, ask yourself if you will still love what you do when you get to 'the top'."
Give yourself permission to pass on promotions and stay in your current role if you believe it to be a fit and find it fulfilling. Rest easy knowing that you’re not doing anything wrong by avoiding promotions. If you feel like a promotion is the natural next step in your career path, take a leap of faith and prove to yourself and your superiors that they made the right choice in selecting you for the role.
Above all… go with your gut.
"I always accepted any opportunity without thinking too much about if it was the direction that steered me towards my career goals. Paying the bills always felt like the most important thing, but now after years of being in the industry, I'm finding I wished I had focused my energies in positions I was more passionate about, rather than just paying the bills.”, shared a technical writer for a software company.
At the end of the day you should enjoy the work you do. Not everyone wants to manage people or feel confident in a leadership role. Choose your career path that not only fits with the type of work you want to do, but also the type of life you want to live.
“Imagine choosing a job not on money or even on career advancement, but as part of a life worth living.” - Dale Dauten