A new approach to moving up the corporate ladder

Recently, I received an announcement regarding a symposium for mid-career professionals on “”Moving Up the Ladder.”” Priced at $2,500, the three-day course was sponsored by a nationally respected business school.

Rather than tie up three days, here’s a 15-minute short course. First, the Executive

Summary … Someone stole the ladder.

Today’s organizations are struggling to survive in fiercely competitive global markets. They’re restructuring, outsourcing, re-engineering, downsizing, subcontracting and forming alliances with friends … and enemies.

The plugged-in, turned-on Internet-driven marketplace has issued new mandates to every organization to make dramatic, sometimes drastic, changes. Successful firms find they need to be lean, agile and quick to respond. The result has been a leveling of the corporate structure. Middle management layoffs don’t even make the news any more. The thousands who find themselves suddenly without jobs wonder what the *&%$# happened.

Companies Struggle to Survive

What happened was, we changed the way we do business, and firms must adapt to survive. Companies around the globe are eliminating excess baggage … abandoning bureaucratic practices … dramatically reducing the amount of time it takes to get things done. Organizations that don’t or won’t accelerate their change will disappear … many already have.

The same is true for business professionals at every level who work in this Information Age. Forget about moving up the corporate ladder. Focus on making you your career. The truth is, no one owes you or guarantees pay increases, promotions, a job or even a career future.

In 1995, one in five American employees had been with their employer less than a year. The same holds true in Canada. Two out of three, less than five years. Gone are the nine-to-five jobs, lifetime jobs, predictable hierarchical relationships, corporate security blankets and even the conventional workplace.

Since 1980, the temporary, self-employed, part-time and consultant segment of the U.S. workforce has grown more than 65 per cent. By year 2000, less than 50 per cent of the industrial world’s workforce were holding conventional full-time jobs. I do not know what the rate is in Canada, but I’ll bet it is similar.

A Quick Look Back

To understand the reasons for the changing workplace, you have to examine the past. But do it quickly, or you’ll get run over by the future.

In the ’60s, half of the workers in the industrial world made or helped make something. By the year 2000, only one-sixth to one-eighth of the workforce in developed countries were making and moving goods. Statistics on the current U.S. working population show that two-thirds are already in the service sector. The same holds true for Canadians.

Knowledge is our most important product.

Today’s businesses are in a constant state of flux. Rather than being bogged down with chain of command decision-making; project teams are made up of suppliers, customers, contractors and even competitors. There’s a constant stream of new co-workers, new bosses and new challenges. A person’s ability to become quick-change artist–and be comfortable in dealing with uncertainty–enhances his or her reputation and career.

You Control Your Career

In this new environment, people have to take 100 per cent control of their own lives … their own careers … their own futures. People have to come to grips with the hard fact that there are limits on how loyal an employer can be. Firms can no longer throw money and people at problems. They have to find better solutions faster … with less.

People who struggle to maintain the past or status quo, who cling to old assumptions like the corporate ladder and job security, and who resist the inevitability of change are, unfortunately, left behind. Those who catch on and invest in finding and seizing change’s opportunities, earn the rewards.

The Japanese call it kaizen–the relentless quest for a better way, for higher-quality craftsmanship–the daily pursuit of perfection. The passionate pursuit of kaizen improves your competence level and your worth to yourself and others. It also protects your career, even if your company or job disappears tomorrow.

While perfection is important, so is a strong sense of urgency. You can’t be bogged down in endless preparation; fact-finding and planning before you make your move. You can’t wait for a firm directive. High quality is important, but it must be done expeditiously. It means having the ability to fail fast, fix it and move on.

Dramatic breakthroughs in science and technology don’t come in quantum leaps–they’re the result of hard-won incremental improvements.

Empower Yourself

In today’s flattened organizations and reduced hierarchies, management can’t wait for someone to “”empower”” you. You have to empower yourself.

If you empower yourself, you don’t wait for someone to call the shots, to supervise you and to be accountable for the problems and results of your efforts. That’s your job.

To be successful, you can’t afford the luxury of a three-day symposium focusing on how to move up the ladder. You have to think of yourself as self-employed … in business for yourself.

Whether you’re inside or outside of the organization, focus on bottom line results and profits for the company. Don’t waste time, energy and resources on activities that don’t provide a strong payoff for your employer/client.


Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon, says he told his PacTel bosses (and by his accounts, there was a constant stream of them) that when he cost the company more than he contributed, he expected to be fired. Confident in himself, and perhaps bolstered by an increasingly lucrative creative career, he realized his job security was based more on providing added value to PacTel; rather than his tenure, company loyalty or activity level.

People who simply stay busy, without adding any real value, are building their careers on fantasy. The better you serve … the more you take control of projects and their outcome … the more you add value … the better you perform … the more you enhance your career.

It doesn’t guarantee job security, raises or promotions. However, by practicing kaizen in today’s boundary-less organization–even when there are a few loose ends or ragged edges to your decisions and actions, it helps high-velocity organizations stay ahead.

Attractive Candidate

It gives you more energy, more self-confidence and more job satisfaction. It also makes you a more attractive job candidate–inside and outside your present firm.

Your three-day symposium is complete. Let’s split the cost of the original course … just send me a check for $1,250 and we can both move on to the tasks at hand.

Andy Marken is the president of Marken Communications Inc. of San Jose, Calif. You can contact him at Andy@markencom.com

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