Why the Career Ladder is Going Nowhere


You might remember the days, or heard the urban legends, when someone worked at the same company for fifty years, received their gold watch, and walked into the sunset. Hold on tight, be patient, and keep climbing—we've all been told this will pay off some day.

If you pay your dues and stay with our company long enough, you will move up the ladder. - Ancient inscription on an employee orientation letter

Today, with the flattening of organizations, the career ladder has been replaced by a career lattice—where advancement isn’t only about vertical movement. Success is also about horizontal opportunities that provide new experiences and expand skills.

Careers today don’t follow nice tidy paths. They zig and zag in response to the doors that open and opportunities that are seized. This makes some people seasick, but it’s the new reality.

My career is a case in point: currently in my fifth career, aspiring engineer, became a corporate banker, moved into leadership development, and became a solopreneur, then an entrepreneur with a growing team, and now an author and professional speaker.

Josh Bersin founder of Bersin by Deloitte recently told me, “I think there’s basically a redefinition of what business is, and it isn’t just a hierarchical company. It’s a network. This is having profound implications on how we manage people, people’s careers, and how we develop people, or manage performance. Traditional management stuff is getting questioned because it doesn’t serve you as well in this new world.“

Think about it. A hamster wheel is simply a ladder made into a circle. It’s designed for running in place.

The career lattice is indicative of how the corporate hierarchy is shifting. From defined “hard-line reporting” and top-down structure to one that is matrixed. You can be “hard lined” to one manager while “dotted lined” to another manager or team. We now work in a series of interconnected and interdependent networks.

When we pause to consider who our “bosses” are, most of us will identify an ever-extending and convoluted group that includes customers, colleagues, our immediate boss, our bosses’ boss , the regional leader, and the functional leader.

Learning to manage what may become competing perspectives and opinions will differentiate the high performer of the future. To future-proof your career you need to be connected at multiple levels, to multiple people, and actively cultivate those connections.

Relationship with Employers

The twentieth-century expectation of work was this: we provide our skills, mental and physical, to one employer in return for getting paid at a regular and predictable cadence. This forms the basis for what was described as the “psychological contract,” the implicit expectations which employers had of their employees—and vice versa. Work hard and the company would provide pay and benefits for a lifetime.

The idea of an employer taking care of its employees from Day One through retirement might seem too good to be true, and it’s certainly too good to be true now. The rules of the employer-employee contract, whether implicit or explicit, are being rewritten.

The rules of the employer-employee contract, whether implicit or explicit, are being rewritten.

The question is, are you managing your career accordingly? Are you stuck on the ladder, or enjoying the lattice?

As a manager, are you dealing with the new reality of employees who expect to climb a lattice—and jump when opportunity knocks?

In the modern world, working for several employers in part-time and contract work will continue to increase. Company pension schemes are becoming less common, with individual retirement account or stakeholder pensions becoming the responsibility of each individual.

Loyalties are shifting from the company or the team, and to the manager one works with. The quality of the working relationship with boss and colleagues, or the lack of it, is a key driver for staying with, or leaving, an employer. The Kelly Global Workforce Index 2013 surveyed 120,000 respondents from thirty-one countries across the globe. Of these, sixty-three percent of the participants stated that the quality of the relationship with their direct manager impacted their level of satisfaction with their job.

The psychological contract is no more. Welcome to the social contract.

Relationships matter, and the quality of our working relationships matter even more. Our willingness to tolerate toxic behaviors —the team member who takes credit for our work, the boss who yells, or being excluded from team meetings—is diminishing. Our options to seek opportunities elsewhere are endless. When people move to a new job, it’s not just about the money being offered, it’s also about the quality of the team experience.

Globalization is changing the nature of work. No longer are individual employees competing in a local market for the next opportunity, instead we are all part of the Global Talent Pool. When it comes to finding new sources of talent it seems that 21st Century companies are destined to play a never-ending game of global whack-a-mole. As fast as a new talent hotspot pops up, whether it’s a city or a country, other companies quickly follow—the market is saturated – and the game moves to the next talent hotspot.

The internet means we are now competing with an unseen colleague who may be thousands of miles, and many time zones, away. When you’re sleeping, they’re working.

Dan Pink, bestselling author of books on the changing world of work, observes “talented people need organizations less than organizations need talented people.”

The future of work is less of a chore or a place we have to go to. Instead, work becomes something we choose to do, because we want to.

As a manager, are you ready to move your company into the lattice?

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No Funding Necessary: How I Built My Business In 9 Steps

Organic growth has made all the difference for my company. Since its start in 2010, Fresh n' Lean has delivered more than 7.2 million organic meals that are free of pesticides, hormones, GMOs, and other additives. The business itself has grown organically, too, without the help of any outside capital. Over the past decade, Fresh n' Lean's bootstrapped operation has grown into a 220-employee company with nine-figure revenue.

Here's how I've been able to successfully build my business without taking on a penny of outside funding.

1. A Hard Decision

The decision of whether or not to take on outside capital is a difficult one.

I was lucky— I relied on personal savings to fund Fresh n' Lean at the company's onset. I thought Fresh n' Lean was a meaningful endeavor, and I believed in myself and my vision.

Not every business owner would be financially able to make the same decision I did. Either way, it's important that your company's growth happens gradually and naturally.

2. Start Small

I was an 18-year-old college student when I launched Fresh n' Lean.

I would regularly work upwards of 20 hours a day— cooking dishes, arranging the meals in tupperware containers, handwriting the labels, and personally delivering them to some of our earliest customers.

Pretty soon we were shipping meals nationally, and I began renting a commercial kitchen space.

We generated a ton of enthusiasm from our customers, and that support prooved that we were on to something. But the early days featured lots of trial and error. We made mistakes and learned from them before scaling the business.

3. Rely On Your Network

Fresh n' Lean started with a team of five people. My friends and relatives chipped in, and my brother Thomas joined Fresh n' Lean as co-CEO.

Relying on those close colleagues was so meaningful in helping me get the company off the ground. I often look at Fresh n' Lean's employees as a family, and that mentality was especially true in those early days.

As I ramped up the hiring, my experiences with every aspect of our operation made me sharp at understanding the company's needs— and helped me to hire employees with the right skill set and mentality to drive the company forward.

4. Hold Firm

Fresh n' Lean embodies a lifestyle choice, a chance for everyone in the United States to have access to nourishing meals amid their busy lives.

We probably could have driven more sales by offering non-organic meal options, but I wanted the company to remain true to my mission.

A decade later, I'm so proud to see the impact Fresh n' Lean has made in redefining fast food.

5. Capitalize On Industry Trends

We live in a society of instant gratification— we want everything now, and our world is completely focused on convenience.

When Fresh n' Lean was launched, the idea of receiving ready-to-eat meals on your doorstep was a strange concept. But a decade later, we're used to having everything delivered to our homes. Recognizing and capitalizing on those changing consumer habits was a big part of our growth.

6. Don't Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

For years, I wanted to open our own kitchen facility— it was a top priority.

But building the space was a difficult and extensive process that could have financially devastated us if we attempted it too soon. In those early years, the project would have left the company too vulnerable.

Instead of moving forward with the project, we waited. In the meantime, we continued renting commercial kitchen space. One day a week turned into two, and then three and four, and eventually we were renting the space five days a week.

In time, we had no other options but to build our own kitchen facility— and our restraint before moving forward with that project was crucial, even if it was frustrating for the short-term.

7. Focus On You

As you build your company, it's easy to try to compare it to the growth other companies experience.

But headlines and press releases don't reveal the full story, and outside funding can mask structural and foundational problems. One example is the online ordering and meal delivery service Munchery, which secured more than $125 million from lenders before closing in early 2019.

Every company's story is unique! You can't judge your company's success based on the ups and downs of others. Focus on making your company the best you can.

8. One Thing At A Time

Our meal offerings have expanded through deliberate, strategic planning and extensive customer feedback.

We started with vegan meals and followed with protein-based meals. Other meal plan options, Paleo and Keto, were added to the menu in the past few years.

Building the recipes takes time— we want to be sure to get it right. And our customer feedback ensures that there's built-in interest before rolling out new meal options.

9. Be Resourceful

Building the company without outside capital forced me to be more resourceful. I couldn't throw money at everything I wanted to change— I had to be patient and find alternative solutions.

It's similar, in a way, to cooking a dish without having every ingredient listed in the recipe. You must have the key ingredients! Our executive chef was one of our earliest hires.

But you can adjust and improvise on some of the secondary ingredients, using whatever alternatives you have available and relying on tried-and-true methods to fill in the gaps.

Who knows? Through experimentation, you just might find a better way to cook your dish or guide your company forward.