Joanne Cleaver On The Problems With The Career Ladder

Joanne Cleaver, author of The Career Lattice laughs from the other side of our Skype call, “let’s face it: if you’re at any given rung on the ladder the view looking up is not very pretty”. We’re discussing her book which challenges the received notion of the career ladder and how our working lives should advance.

Joanne CleaverMost people strive for a meaningful career progression every few years. Traditionally, this route meant starting in a junior position in an established company, moving through the ranks over a succession of years, and finally edging your way into a c-suite before retiring with a gold watch. Sounds like a sweet deal!

However, while the image of a career ladder might have made sense in this context, it’s no longer fit for the purposes of a modern career. It’s “a powerful metaphor, but the more you think about it, the more unattractive it becomes. The ladder is very linear. Literally, for you to move up someone either has to move up or has to fall off”.

Being saddled with this prevailing image in a world where we change our jobs on average every two years, and where our methods of working have changed dramatically has become problematic. “It’s not collaborative […] It’s a very narrow point of view of the traditional corporate construct with each department being its own silo, or self-contained unit and then a ladder in each one”.

The Age Of The Generalist

Technological advances have opened up departments, and many people can now work cross-functionally. We are in the age of the generalist, not the specialist and each employee needs to be able to adapt quickly. But the “image of parallel ladders trying to breach a medieval wall”, is the kind of pseudo-military macho language that still permeates how we talk about work. The language we use should reflect the diversification of our careers.

Many of the rungs on the traditional route have been removed due to increased proliferation of tech in every aspect of work, and of course, due to “a couple of really difficult recessions [where] companies wiped away entire organisational levels. There are fewer people to report to, [so] there are fewer opportunities for traditional upward movement.”

So what is the solution to changing how we advance our careers, if we can’t even the next level? The career lattice is the metaphor that Joanne has developed to fill this gap.

What Is The Career Lattice?

“It’s very much like an ivy that is looking to grow – it branches out and it branches up. The lattice doesn’t say you never advance, the lattice says you look for growth diagonally and over, and branching up as well as the traditional upward movement. You want to identify opportunities that help you qualify for tomorrow’s jobs today, because we don’t know what tomorrow’s jobs are.”

And that, in essence is the nub of the issue. We don’t know what tomorrow’s jobs will be so how can we aim for them? I always like to think of John Green’s Commencement Speech, where he says, “If you had told College Me that I would become a professional YouTuber, I would’ve been like, ‘That is not a word, and it never should be’.”

Our Future Jobs Don’t Exist Yet

Star Trek

Joanne agrees. “Tomorrow’s jobs are emerging all the time but if you’re always gaining business experience and technical credentials or whatever you’re good at… [you] get better at your core strengths. Look for creative leadership and creative business problem-solving opportunities where you can get exposed to new people, collaborate with new people and learn different types of leadership skills by being involved in lots of different teams and projects. Then you can remix those skills and experiences for the next opportunity when it suddenly materialises.”

Ambition has become more diffuse along with the natural courses of careers, and it’s now rare that people gun for a single job that they see as the jewel in their crown. “It’s becoming about how you can empower and support other people’s success at every level. Just because you’re new at your job or you’re starting your career doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful and help your team define success and achieve that.”

Millennials Are Already Adapting


For Millennials, this is indeed the case, with Generation Y valuing fulfilment ahead of remuneration. Having had the carpet pulled out from under them in the biggest global recession since the crash of ‘29, younger people had to regroup and harness a more creative approach to their careers. Markers of success are no longer material goods, but good ideas.

“There is the expectation with Millennials that they will be consistently evolving whereas previous generations have expected to plateau and then take a big step up repeatedly and that’s a jarring way to run your career when you think about it. If you’re continually evolving you have more opportunities for smaller reconciliations of your personal life and your career that hopefully you can find that balance continually instead of having to do big rebalances.”

If you’re treating your career like a lattice instead of a ladder, “you’re taking in smaller steps and you’re continually evolving, [and] you’re really responding to changing market conditions and changing technological platforms.”

So the moral of the story is don’t feel frustrated if you feel like your career isn’t advancing upward in a straight, linear path. That’s not what success looks like. Success lies in being adaptable, focusing on your natural skills, and spotting opportunities where there may not have been one before!

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Joanne. If you’re interested in finding out more, you can check out The Career Lattice website, or follow Joanne on Twitter @jycleaver

Images: “star trek bridgeCC by donielle (via Flickr) |”Adapt or Die PoznanCC by MOs810 (via Wikimedia Commons) 

Carrie M. King

Carrie M. King

Carrie M. King is the Editor of the Journal by Jobspotting. Hailing originally from smack-bang in the middle of Ireland, she moved to Berlin in 2014 to join the gang at Jobspotting. Carrie previously worked in journalism and literature. If you want to share thoughts or ideas, get in touch: