Do you view your career path as a jungle gym or a ladder?

Today is April 18 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “do you view your career path as a jungle gym or a ladder?” Navigating your career and practicing the art of living well requires a clear, concise, and compelling mental model on the path you travel. The most common mental model is that of a corporate ladder. A more dynamic, practical, and valuable approach, however, is the jungle gym metaphor. In her book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg borrows a career development metaphor of the jungle gym from Fortune magazine editor Pattie Sellers. “People who view their careers as jungle gyms, rather than ladders,” observed Sellers, “make sure that their vision is always peripheral so that they can see opportunities that come along—and swing to them.” Sandberg continued that thought and wrote “A jungle gym scramble is the best description of my career since I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today.”


The jungle gym metaphor offers a different approach to career development than the traditional corporate ladder for a variety of reasons. First, the jungle gym allows you to move up, down, and sideways, whereas the ladder allows you to move only up and down. Having the flexibility of a jungle gym is an absolute necessity in today’s challenge job market. Second, the jungle gym allows you to work with others, while the ladder only offers you the opportunity to walk over someone to get to the next step. Finally, the jungle gym has a wide base and therefore allows for a stronger foundation as compared to the ladder that has two legs and is subject to wind, shifts in weight, or unpaved surfaces.


Creating options via the jungle gym is especially relevant for new college graduates who possess high expectations that their degree will result in an immediate dream job following graduation. In What Colour is Your Parachute? Richard Bolles concluded, “Even in tough times there are jobs to be had, but applicants have to work far harder to get an employer’s attention. They need to market themselves better and consider a broader range of employers.” In considering a career move are you only looking up or are you considering other options that exist all around you? One such person that considered her options is Whoopi Goldberg, the only African American woman with an EGOT (an Emmy, A Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony). Goldberg disputed that she was ever on anything so clear as a path and said “You can’t create a career. It goes where it goes.” Having a jungle gym approach allows you to have a career that ‘goes where it goes.’


The jungle gym approach is also an effective strategy to use when navigating your way to the corner office. In 2018 researchers Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell published The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors that Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders and found substantial evidence that a jungle gym approach was overwhelmingly an effective strategy to use while navigating one’s career. Specifically, Botelho and Powell discovered three “catapults” people used to propel themselves into the CEO role. “The catapults are so powerful that even people in our study who never aspired to become CEO ultimately landed the position by pursuing one or more of these strategies.”


First, more than 60% of CEOs took a smaller role at some point in their career. They may have started something new within their company (by launching a new product or division, for example), moved to a smaller company to take on a greater set of responsibilities, or started their own business. Second, more than one-third of sprinters catapulted to the top by making “the big leap,” often in the first decade of their careers. These executives threw caution to the wind and said yes to opportunities even when the role was well beyond anything they’ve done previously, and they didn’t feel fully prepared for the challenges ahead.


Finally, it may feel counterintuitive, and a bit daunting, but one way to prove your CEO mettle is by inheriting a big mess. It could be an underperforming business unit, a failed product, or a bankruptcy — any major problem for the business that needs to be fixed fast. Ninety-seven percent of CEOs undertook at least one of these catapult experiences and close to 50% had at least two. Accelerating your career through these catapults doesn’t require an elite MBA or a select mix of inborn traits, but it does require a willingness to make lateral, unconventional, and even risky career moves. It’s not for the faint of heart. But if you aspire to top leadership, you might as well get used to it. Not every move has to be so calculated though. Consider the role and value of the lateral move.


Lisa Alteri, Chief People Officer for Kraft Heinz U.S. believes people should “lean into their curiosity and embrace the power of the lateral move.” Doing so, however, means letting go of one’s ego. As Alteri noted “It’s hard to quell that evil ego. In general, there is an obsession about titles because title is associated with status, and that’s where the ego comes in. But you as the individual care so much more about the title than your current or future organization does. And those lateral moves can bring so much more than a title.” As you navigate the chaos of your career, are you stuck in the old paradigm of a ladder or have you accepted the more agile strategy of a jungle gym approach?