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It’s no surprise that the traditional “career ladder” model, with its linear pathway of advancement within an established hierarchy, has been replaced. But how and why? And what’s the impact on today’s worker?


The great paradigm shift.

In the great economic and employment boom that followed World War II, people tended to imagine their careers in the form of a ladder. You started at the bottom. Maybe in an apprenticeship to a trade. Or after college, in an entry-level position. You knew that a line of promotions existed you could go as far up that ladder as you wanted.

Today, some ladder-type careers still exist at places like small, independent banks where you can start as a teller, get promoted to cashier, then loan officer, then branch manager, and so on. Large retail stores are another example. You start out as a sales clerk, then become a department head, buyer, etc. Some occupational fields – real estate, for example – even support formal classes in which you can master specific skills that boost you up the ladder.

But in the 21st century, workers are more and more turning their career path into a lattice. After they start at the entry level, they'll maybe take a step or two up, then, perhaps after taking a class on their own time, make a lateral move. One example is the teller in the small independent bank who joins a major multinational bank, where  there’s an opportunity to learn credit analysis or international exchange.

Goodbye, career ladder. Hello, career lattice.

The book The Corporate Lattice by Cathleen Benko and Molly Anderson (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010) explores this paradigm shift. In the book’s accompanying website www.latticemcc.com, the concept of The Corporate Latticeis expanded upon. Here are some of the most salient points:

  • “Firmly rooted in the industrial era, the corporate ladder proffers a one-size-fits-all view of the world of work. But today’s workplace isn't what it used to be – and neither is the workforce. The ladder is collapsing and The Corporate Lattice™ (TCL) is emerging.”
  • “In the ladder world, work is a place you go between 9 and 5. Success is a fatter title, bigger office and paycheck. Power and prestige are the most prized rewards. But today’s world is different. A lattice metaphor more aptly describes the changing world. Careers zig and zag. Work is what you do, not where you go. And information moves every which way.”

Move up, move over: a new type of career growth.

Lateral moves don't necessarily offer increases in pay or responsibilities. Instead, they offer a chance to try a new job that calls for a different set of skills than the previous one. The skills are not necessarily job specific (like finding a vein with a hypodermic needle to draw a blood sample). Instead, they’re transferable (like calming a young patient who has never experienced a needle-stick before, which would be very useful in dealing with a resident in a memory care center who has become agitated.)

Joanne Cleaver’s book The Career Lattice (McGraw-Hill, 2012) lists several such skills, including negotiation, teaching/coaching, persuasion, leadership,  and working independently (being your own boss). These skills can be learned formally. A teaching degree, for example, is a four-year college program if you want to be employed in a public school. But college majors in leadership do not exist. Leadership is learned in part, by experience, trying various methods, and thoughtfully observing what works and what doesn't work, sometimes with the guidance of a trusted mentor.

America’s occupational information resource O*NET illustrates career lattices/ladders in seven industries in addition to financial services. These include construction, energy, advanced manufacturing, retail, hospitality, information technology, and long term health care. A look at their material can help you add lattice-style thinking to your career planning.

In the lattice model, the traditional career trajectory is replaced with a slightly more complex – but potentially more rewarding – model. A “ladder” career can be a relatively passive one; a “lattice” career is your active responsibility and can be a source of great satisfaction.

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About The Author

Dr. Donald Zytowski

Dr. Donald Zytowski has served a key role in facilitating internal and third-party research for Kuder, including development of new assessment and content for the vast database of career biographies in the Kuder® Career Interests AssessmentTM. He is a well-established counseling psy ... read more