Aspiring professionals, especially those who come from under-represented groups, are often encouraged to climb the ladder of success. There are countless books and articles offering advice and ideas. But, I’d like to offer that rather than thinking about a ladder as a model for leadership we should consider a staircase model instead.
Ladders, by their nature, are an individual activity…really designed for one person to climb at a time, but a staircase is much more inclusive. On a staircase, more than one person can ascend at a time, your ability to grow and succeed is not necessarily hampered by those before you and you can actively bring people along with you.
Here are some things to consider as you ascend the stairs to leadership:
■ Am I bringing others along? Succession planning is about more than a CEO change. As you master your current position and are looking toward the next step, consider who will replace you? Are you actively training your replacement? Not only does this demonstrate your leadership abilities, it also prevents the excuse we often hear “but you are so good at your role right now, we have no one to replace you…”
■ What can I learn from those around me? In the ladder model, too often we look only at those directly above us, with the staircase model—we look more broadly. Look at leaders above your next desired position, look at leaders in other departments, what can you learn from how they have advanced their career? If your career goal is to be in the C-suite, in some companies, you might be best served with some lateral experiences in different departments, so you can offer a more well-rounded set of experiences. In other companies, you might need to have experience in different geographies. So, staying at a ‘landing’ on the stairs in order to ultimately climb higher may be necessary.
■ Do I have a network outside of my employer? Some staircases are very grand and broad, use those as your model. Constantly build your network outside of your employer and outside of your field. Career opportunities can come from a variety of places, you might sit on a nonprofit board with a CEO of a company you admire. That relationship could become a future career opportunity.
■ Am I being true to myself? It is easy to let someone else define whether or not we are successful. You must define your own success. For me, I realized that success meant switching from the for-profit world to the non-for-profit world. My end point of success changed. So for those stairs that divide into two different directions, sometimes we need to make a choice on which way to go.
■ Am I modeling behaviors I value? Sometimes we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are modeling behaviors we believe are important. For example, with the staircase model, one should be able to ‘pause’ as they ascend, perhaps to care for a child or parent. If the ability to do this is something that you value, ask yourself if your actions match your values? Again, looking at the example of a career pause, are you open to interviewing a job candidate who is returning to the workforce?
There is no clear and easy path to becoming a leader, however, if we can change our perspective and be open to a more inclusive path, we can bring others along with us. We can create a more inclusive leadership model and ultimately, a more inclusive workplace. And for me, modeling the behavior I expect of others.